Weekly Fireflies - Essouira

I know I just posted a couple of days ago, but I am going to make an effort to post weekly, so here goes. Catching up! Essaouira

I-swear-a it’s a good place (hehe, I love turning city names into phrases). This laid back beach town is a craft-lovers dreamscape. It seems everyone is an artist in their own right – whether it’s the inlaid woodcraft, silver filigree, weaving or stitching, this place not only is downright beautiful in and of itself, but it’s full of beautiful things. I can see why it’s a popular vacation spot for Moroccans and foreigners alike.

The food in Essaouira is also particularly good. Jon talked a bit about it in his recent post – but we’ve had a great time sharing meals with our AirBnB host, Hamid. Every night we’ve gone to the souk, picked out our meat of choice, visited Hamid’s favorite spice guy, his preferred vegetable vendor and we were on our way to the best meals we’ve had in Morocco. It drove home the point that home cooking is where it’s at here, and I’m so glad we were able to do the airbnb thing and stay with Moroccans.


One of the most fascinating opportunities we’ve had has been to travel overland from Mali to Senegal through Mauritania and up through Morocco. To experience cultural shifts and changes and to see qualities that are similar has been such a wonderful learning experience. Things as simple as the tea service that has gone from a multi-hour super strong syrupy green tea in Mali, to the even sweeter but minty-er brew in Senegal, to the very light even more minty tea of Mauritania to tea that is served in every café on ever corner in Morocco – this is something in which nearly everyone in this region of the world partakes.

It’s been fascinating to watch mannerisms change from the kind and gentle but indirect communications of Malians to the abrasive, loud and argumentative ways of Mauritanians. We’ve seen the similarities and differences in how people negotiate for prices, and how plumbing does and doesn’t work and just what service and hospitality means to different cultures.

Pan-African Health

It apparently is hard to stay healthy! I realized today that between the two of us, Jon and I have had some sort of ailment since week 2 of this trip. Wowza. Here’s to good health!

Being a woman in Morocco

Gender has been a topic of discussion often between Jon and me, mostly because my experience when doing something alone is entirely different from when we’re together. In Mali I could walk around safely and unbothered just about anywhere. In Senegal I knew the culture well enough to know how to deal with just about anything that came my way. In Mauritania, I covered up and hung back quietly.

Morocco has been the most complex and challenging for me, as this is clearly a country that has a conservative and traditional past for women, but whose position is rapidly changing. In 2004 the new king passed laws giving women more equal rights, abolishing polygamy and paving the way for women to have more choices. But it’s still awkward and difficult for me to go to a café alone, walking in a souk by myself warrants unending cat calls and hassle, and conversations with Moroccans about the egalitarian nature of my marriage confounds most. What’s also interesting is that it’s challenging for Moroccan women as well. Many experience the same hassle as I have, and I imagine that many young independent women feel pressures from family and potential husbands to adhere to certain cultural norms. All I can do is be grateful for the opportunity to experience these cultures and understand a world different from my own.

Transport Tally

One thing’s for certain about our first 2 months of 2013 – we did a lot of moving around. After final tally and some guesswork, I figured out that we took about 85 different types of transport trips. Here’s how we got around from leaving Portland, getting to Belgium, and moving through Mali, Senegal, Morocco and Mauritania:

  • 10 Buses
  • 5 Airplanes
  • 4 Bush Taxis
  • 2 Taxi Clandeau (shared inner city taxis)
  • 5 Trains
  • 2 Ferries
  • 1 Pirogue
  • 3 Car Rapide
  • 4 Metro/Subways
  • 2 Rental Vehicles
  • 1 Mini Bus
  • 1 Ride with Mom (that would be Jon’s, thanks for getting us to the airport Sheryl!)
  • Approx 45 taxi rides (I had to guess, we really weren’t counting)

Phew! No wonder we’re tired. By the way, I wished I started taking photos of the taxis in every place we’ve been. Taxis in Bamako are all yellow. In Senegal, always yellow and black (except in the Casamance where they spray paint some blue stripes on a car). In Mauritania, I have no idea, they aren’t identifiable – like so many other confusing things about that place. In Dakhla and on the Moroccan coast, white with a blue stripe, or all blue with a white top. In Agadir, bright red. Finally, in Marrakesh – tan or..mud brown/yellow – not attractive.

Not wanting to go to France – um, what?

I never thought I’d say that I don’t want to go to France. Jon and I are leaving Morocco today to head to a small village outside of Lyon. We’ll be in France for six weeks working for a camp that teaches English to French kids. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had a steady job in 3 months, or because I just like waking up at 10am every day, but I’d really like to just head back to the Dades Gorge and hang with our friend Ismail. My perspective on life must be really off when my choices are spending 6 weeks in France or skipping out on responsibility and immersing myself in a lush green valley tucked in a range of snow-peaked desert mountains.

10 years later...

Almost to the date, I landed in Dakar once again. I was sad to leave Mali, and was actually a bit nervous to come to Senegal – would I remember how to get around, would it be very different? But as we flew over the peninsula, and got to see the entire city and surrounding water, I was so excited. Now that I’m here, it doesn’t feel strange, or unfamiliar. It feels like it did 10 years ago, except I don’t have to relearn everything. Plus, being in Senegal is so much easier than Mali. I didn’t even realize the apparent not-so-subtle differences. I didn’t realize how underdeveloped Bamako is, and just how developed Dakar has become. More services, more construction, infrastructure, it’s all around more modern. Bamako, while a major city, has a provincial feel, like a never-ending village. It’s not a bad thing, just my observation. I suppose that coming to this part of Africa feels normal at this point. There are certainly things that make me say, “WOW,” but I understand the daily rhythms and so it just feels like a regular place to me.

We have been kindly welcomed into the home of a friend of mine I met while studying here in 2003. He and his wife have embodied the Senegalese notion of Taranga or Senegalese hospitality. They have opened their home, fed us, and toured us around the city in the last week. It has been such an amazing gift, we are often left wondering how we could ever properly say thank you.

Grand Baobab

In the last week, it’s also been wonderful to do so many things I never did during my entire four months the last time. Believe or not, I never went to the beach, not even to walk, while I was here last time. Taking strolls along the ocean, visiting the fish market and enjoying the proximity of the sea has been a lovely shift from the stark dry desert of Mali (although I really did enjoy that it only took a few minutes for my hair – and everything else – to dry in Mali).

We visited my old neighborhood, SICAP Baobab, and walked the still-familiar path from the Baobab Center (where I took classes), past the boulangerie and the cabine telephone – which is now a boutique because everyone either has a cell phone or home landline, why would they ever need to go to a telephone center – past the 500 year old Grand Baobab, the namesake tree of the neighborhood, around another corner, past more familiar homes and shops and to the little soccer (sand) field, just opposite the home where I used to live. It was wonderful to walk down memory lane, and I cannot wait until Monday night when we have dinner with my host family.

It's huge! That's me at the veerrry bottom

We’ve marveled at Dakar’s new features as well – the world’s now largest statue, made entirely out of bronze, costing the country more money than it would have taken to lift the shanty town at its base out of poverty. We strolled the sparkly new shopping mall filled with European shops – all boasting huge sales, and then played a game of cosmic bowling in the most beautiful bowling alley I’ve ever seen. Everything so shiny and new – presumably because they are too expensive for the majority of Senegalese to enjoy. Just like the huge sculpture that costs 3000cfa – more than many people’s daily wage ($6 USD) to ascend to the top, former president Abdoulaye Wade’s blatant waste of money almost mocks the Senegalese people, giving them something that links them to the western world they seem to long to be a part of, yet keeping it out of reach in a resentful way.


Honestly, I feel the same way about Senegal as I did 10 years ago, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I recalled the email I wrote to friends and family on May 21, 2003, just a couple of days before I was leaving from my semester abroad here in 2003, and want to share it, as it continues to sum up feelings I have about being here, and what it might be like to leave again.

“But what a country. I'm not sure what I'll do when greeting people doesn't include an inquisition about the family, friends, uncles, brothers and sisters. And what to do when there's no ferno at every corner with a pot of attaaya brewing. What to do when visiting friends isn't a short two minute walk down the street past the telecenter and to the right. and What to do when I can't bargain for the price I want (things are too expensive in the states anyway).

I will always think of all the little children that are everywhere, who look scared, then curious, and then so excited with their big dark eyes when they see me coming. It's images of mothers with babies on the back and a bucket on the head that will always remain. It's traffic jams with 10 yellow and black taxis coming from every direction trying to go everyother direction, and no one is moving. It's carts and wheelbarrows full of mangos and oranges, next to little stands that sell peanuts and cookies for 25Fcfa. And it's the constant sound of buzzing and humming coming from the small, dimly lit 'coutures'-the tailor shops-always busy making boubous and dresses, and something for an american or two wanting to bring home a bit of Africa.

In this whirlwind of rough political and economic times all over the world, Senegal keeps moving. As always things change and Youssou N'Dour comes out with another album, but Senegal is always still Senegal. It's just amazing, and I am so grateful to have lived here.”

I suppose the only difference there is that Youssou is now the Prime Minister and I can’t go hear him sing at his Club Thiossane for $4. The oranges now cost 75cfa (500cfa to the dollar). Oh well.

Jon and I are planning to head to the Casamance on Tuesday, an overnight ferry ride (we’re still being cautious about inland travel). The Casamance is the region of Senegal below the sliver of a country, The Gambia, and is lush, green, and inhabited by the Diola people. It’s also home to tropical beaches, more fresh seafood, and a slightly different culture. I’m looking forward to seeing a new part of this fascinating little South Dakota-sized country.

Until the next time, ba beneen jerejef waay (until next time, thanks!). Bisoux ciao.

Endings & Beginnings


I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about beginnings and endings; about chapters in our lives and transitions from one to the next. Jon and I on the fast-track now, with one week until we leave Portland, two until international departure. Whether it’s jobs, where we live, and the people we see every day, there are endings, and new beginnings happening at rapid pace. We ended our jobs yesterday. I wrote in an earlier post that my job and my personal life had become a little too intertwined for comfort. And although the anticipation of the job ending was a long time coming (I gave notice almost 3 months in advance), the day came and went, the access to email and contact lists was gone, the work that was in progress is handed off, and the chapter was closed as swiftly as ever. Trust me, this is all a good thing. Having instant access to your work email all the time is a choice I made when allowing the smartphone to come into the house, and with its arrival the boundary between personal and professional time was even more blurred than before. More than just email, my job became my community, my lifestyle. And so been a long time and I got so accustomed to that line being blurred. My journey of searching for the me without the job has already begun. Now of course, the ending of a job doesn’t mean the ending of the relationships with the people - that for sure is one thing I’ll hold on to, regardless of wherever my new beginnings take me.

There are other chapters that are ending for me too – all with equally balanced beginnings on the other side. But I continue to believe that while things end, they don’t disappear or become less significant. I may leave the arts community for a short time, but the people I met, and the work we did certainly made a lasting impression on me – and I hope I contributed to it in return.

When I think back on my relatively short life, I think about the chapters, about the times that began and ended, only to begin again. As Jon put it while I was writing this, thinking about the past is a natural way of informing our present; and processing where we think we’re going in the future. Well said. What a change we have coming.

And so to stop boring you with my ramblings, since I’m apparently so deep in this mushy ending/beginning time I don’t actually have a point (other than to muse), I leave you with a reading from camp. It’s a reading that I jotted down many years ago in a quote/poetry journal that I kept for years. I realized the other day that the journal ended up in a recycle bin pile when I was cleaning out the basement. Bummer, talk about an ending. Anyway, thanks to Ruth Igoe from Clearwater for sending me the text. These are a few excerpts from “Beginnings & Endings” by Darcy Gruber, 1980 Counselor at Clearwater Camp.

“...If we stop to think about it, life is an endless stream of beginnings followed by endings, followed again, by beginnings. It is the beginnings and endings that make life really worth experiencing.

Here today, each and everyone of us faces an ending and a beginning…Some of us are ending one phase of our lives here and are approaching a new and different phase....This is the way of life and although it is difficult at times, perhaps, some endings are too hard to make - I would prefer life no other way.

Each one of us was touched by someone here and it is up to us to spread these new "touches," these feelings with others. Each one of us has also touched someone. We must continue on, gather more experiences and knowledge - so that, if we meet again, we will have that much more to share and learn. Everyone of us should realize the best thing we have to offer in this world is ourselves.

…I may never see you again, but we have found a place where we will always be together no matter how many miles separate us physically…And know that after every ending, there is always a new beginning.”

A Simpler Time...


I had a good week this week. It was busy, and I’m still waking up with headaches from working 8 hour days at the office and then going home and doing client work for my new freelance business (Stern Creative Solutions, Inc). But all in all, there are some realizations that I’m coming to in anticipation of cutting the cord of a highly-networked and visible profession and lifestyle in order to wander the world. Jon and I have been using up all our Chinook Book coupons that expire this month and decided on Wednesday to go have dinner at the Tao of Tea on Belmont – an old favorite. It has a special place in my heart, I used to go there at least twice a month for a stint and it’s synonymous with relaxing, reflecting, studying for school, or just being with great people in a calm and healthy environment. But, like so many things I used to take part in, I hadn’t been there in years.

So we went for dinner and got one of their comfy little booths. I was exhausted beyond repair, but just being there with my hubby, a warm pot of tea and delicious daal (and Dahl!), made me fulfilled in a way I hadn’t felt for a while. I kept expressing to Jon how nice it was, and how I missed going there. He said to me, “it was a simpler time.”

A simpler time, yes indeed, everything seemed simpler. But what happened that made now complicated, and how has it taken me so long to realize the dramatic shift?

The closer I get to leaving for our travels, the closer I come to some semblance of an answer. My job is pretty great, but when it comes down to it, there’s a direct correlation with when I started my job and when things stopped being simple. It’s easier to see because none of my other previous jobs, or even being in grad school caused me to simply not have the time or energy to do the things I love. During that ‘simpler time’ (which was not THAT long ago), I spent my non-work hours playing music, taking yoga classes, sometimes up to 4 days a week, reading, listening to and buying new music, camping and spending time with friends. My job was a good distance away, so I commuted by bike, which gave me another 1.5 hours per day of high intensity work outs. I was single, living simply and super healthy.

And looking back, there was a clear demarcation in 2008 when I started by current job. In 6 months, I was in grad school, in a committed relationship, no bike commute, out of the band in order to have time to study, and unable to make my yoga classes because of school and work events. In other words, it all stopped. And with the grad school came the student loans, and with the partner (who is now my husband, whom I love dearly) came moving in together, buying a car, and taking on more expenses. Without even knowing it, I was building the web of obligations that make so many of us feel like we’re stuck, without even realizing it or reflecting on what was happening.

But now that we’ve decided to deconstruct the web, the realization of all the sacrifices has been overwhelming. It’s no longer acceptable to me that when people ask, “what do you do for fun?” I freeze up and get all nervous because those fulfilling activities in which I used to partake are tucked away on some backburner that I can’t even find. I have to answer, “well, I serve on a lot of boards…? And… I like to go to arts things when I can…?” Ridiculous, Jessica Stern.

So as I drove to Tualatin today to meet my new CPA for my business, I was struck that my iPod, with the choice of over 5000 songs on shuffle, chose to play 3 songs in a row from R.E.M’s Automatic for the People. Ok, not only is that statistically unlikely, it must be a sign! I used to listen to that album ALL the time, when I listened to music, ALL the time. When things were simpler.

I think that if our entire trip fails and we get nowhere or have to come home, the very experiment of closing up shop and changing course has been a complete success. It’s allowed me to reflect, deeply, about the choices I’ve made over the last few years, and how those choices have guided my life without me really truly paying attention. I sort of let life take its course and now have realized, wait, I’m not doing the things that make me happy, that allow me to express who I am, this isn’t right!

While I never envisioned this travel adventure as a soul-searching mission, I can’t help but think that there will be a huge amount of self-discovery along the way. I do want to get back to the roots of who I am and who I want to be, and what better way to do that then to remove yourself from a static lifestyle and change it up? I’m so looking forward to the surprises, the unexpected, the new and the challenges. We really are seeking our fireflies, those things that give us light and inspiration, and hopefully as a result, I’ll understand how to live my life in a simple and tremendously fulfilling way.

Do you feel stuck? Do you feel like there was a simpler time? Did you have drastic changes in your life that led you away from your essence?