Friday, October 3, 2014

The Vegetarians of Thailand

You won't see this at the Full Moon Party.
Finally I'm in Phuket at the right time to witness the Vegetarian Festival. Fire crackers, smoke, blood, people's heads shaking in a trance - I've never seen anything like it. I think I'm still under the spell of the guy with the boat propeller pierced through his cheek, so I'll let the pictures do the talking.
Thais are hardcore. The more time I spend here the more I love this country.
Once the spirit enters the participant, they go in a trance and often feel no pain

Ten swords.
Multiple thin skewers are commonly used
A Vegetarian cheek
A handful of women participate in the rites

The air is filled with smoke from the firecrackers
Most pierce their cheek, some pierce their tongue, a few do both

Which object to use? This information may come to the participant in a dream

"The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an annual event held during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It is believed that the vegetarian festival and its accompanying sacred rituals bestow good fortune upon those who religiously observe this rite. During this time, local residents of Chinese ancestry strictly observe a 10-day vegetarian or vegan diet for the purposes of spiritual cleansing and merit-making. Sacred rituals are performed at various Chinese shrines and temples and aesthetic displays such as walking barefooted over hot coals and ascending ladders with bladed rungs are performed by entranced devotees known as Ma Song." -

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Traveling Bellydancer in India. Documentary Coming Soon!

Bohemian Birds, "The Travel Society for Curious Minds", selected me as their waxwing award winner this month! Here's what they said:

India, women and bellydancing in Finnish dancer’s documentary

Hailing from snowwhite Finland, Zaina Brown made her way into the bellydancing world on a journey to follow her dream. After years of traveling and practicing the enchanting art of bellydance across the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia, she is filming a documentary about India, bellydancing and being a snowwhite woman in the world’s second most populous country.

Simon van Woerden: “Miss Brown! How are things?”
Zaina Brown: “Good, I’ve been back in India now after a trip to Europe. I’m doing a show tonight - it’s Friday, right? And maybe some more work on the weekend.”
SvW: “So tell me about your documentary! You blog, you’ve published a book of your stories which received glowing reviews and now you’re fundraising for your film project - what’s the script, how is it going?”
ZB: “Yeah! The crowdfunding campaign actually ends in a few days so please tell your readers to send me a dollar or two if they can, haha. The film is about India, my work as a bellydancer, about how it’s different from the Middle East and the Arab world. I was interested in the country’s society, in how women who dance are perceived, what it’s like to be a western woman here...”
Read the rest of our chat HERE.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Weddings, Weddings, and More Weddings in India

I'm making a documentary about bellydance in India! Check it out:

Weddings in India are an extravagant affair. Those with money to spend go all out. A typical middle class wedding budget runs at about $100 000. This covers an outdoor party lawn with a gorgeous setup, a huge buffet dinner, non-stop performances - the whole nine yards.

In just a couple of months I've danced in countless weddings in Delhi and around. Sometimes I'm the only bellydancer, other times I'm one out of four or five. Indian dance groups perform to popular Bollywood songs. Some specialty acts include a human fountain, or a girl dancing in a giant martini glass. Western women are often hired as hostesses, whose tasks vary from greeting guests to cocktail waitressing. The more foreigners in the cast, the more prestige. 

Performers have a big stage all for themselves, the bride and the groom sit on a separate one. Typically we don't even see the happy couple throughout the whole event! In this respect an Indian wedding is very different from an Arabic or Western one. We are there to entertain the guests - not the newlyweds themselves. And entertain we do. 

Wedding venues are huge, and stages are big too.
Bride arriving for the wedding ceremony. All eyes and tons of cameras are on her. 
Life of Krishna dramatization. These silver painted dancers looked incredible.
With Poppy, an Indian dancer. This party had a carnival theme so my bellydance costume got tuned up with feathers.
As "bridesmaids" with Janka Redechova. In addition to bellydancing, we ushered the bride and the groom onto the stage. It was a great chance to see the wedding procession up close.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Getting Tattooed, Somali Style

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

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

Waiting for my red henna to dry

All done!

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

Married Sahrawi women get both hands and feet tattooed. Laayoune, Western Sahara 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed the Somali wedding. I'm a lucky, lucky traveler. Hargeisa, you're too good to me!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sweet Shanghai

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

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

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

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

Candied apples and strawberries. Sold on streets everywhere.

A coco cream puff at Pudong airport. Ending things on a good note.
I'll have to return for that Hello Kitty cake sometime. (The big one.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Star Wars Tour in Tunisia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 3, 2014

How I Met Haile

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

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

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