Hidden Coffee

The man next to me spread his legs, thrust his forearm down and grabbed the thickest part with his other hand. “Javanese men are like this.”

I could guess what he meant, but I asked for clarification anyway.

“Our cocks.” I looked at the other coffee-drinker behind him. He nodded.

Ah I see. Kucir, I had just learned, had five wives. I had a lot of questions. The Quran permits men to have four, but common culture in this country held it at one. We had already sat through a few calls to prayer. It was midday and my fourth time at his coffee stall.

His crudeness escalated as we got to know each other, so it was only on this last meeting that he felt the need to profess his masculinity. I had pried far enough into his marital life at that point that it wasn’t quite surprising.

Continue reading “Hidden Coffee”


Market to Mosque and Back

Sharif exited the market with me. He took the first turn with me, and the second. I asked him where he was going.

“It’s prayer time, Zuhr. Where are you going?”

That way.

“Busy?” No. “Come, I’ll show you my mosque.”

Sharif was a man aged by his beard. Its gray grew whiter pointing down to his clavicle. Gray hair peeked from underneath his skullcap, and he walked with a slouch in his back and arms drooped. Not a lazy slouch, but one that made it seem as if his confidence came from his words and ideas rather than stature. He likely could hold a room with only his words. So he sunk back for his walk to the mosque and I listened.

Continue reading “Market to Mosque and Back”


Adopted with One Regret

The four of us sat on the porch as the first rain drops began to pitter-patter on the roof. A Mother was inside, a father sat in the chair next to me. Dinesh, older than me, and his brother, younger than me, leaned against the stone bannister.

We had known the rain was coming, and as the racket grew against the metal roof, Dinesh looked at me. He pointed to a door at the other end of the porch.


It was half a question, half an invitation, half a command. I smiled. Of course I’d be willing to stay the night if I couldn’t return home, but my motorbike needed to be returned that night. The family that seemed to adopt me without a second thought hadn’t even offered me dinner yet, but I felt I had already become enough of a burden.

Two hours before, I had taken a gamble. A shard of a mountain towered over the other mountains and hills in this bumpy landscape, and I thought I could scale it before sunset. I imagined blues and oranges and pinks ricocheting from the sky to rice paddies to an ideally placed location at a cusp between valleys. Continue reading “Adopted with One Regret”


How to clear a path to human rights

Ali Nawaz Chowhan made a decision nearly three years ago that he thought threatened his life. It was May 2015, and he had been chief justice in The Gambia for 14 months. Before that, he presided over human rights cases at the International Court of Justice at The Hague for seven years.

On this day in Banjul, The Gambia, he acquitted a widely disliked admiral of treason. The country’s president, Yahya Jammeh — who was only removed from power after a parlous shock election in 2016 — was bent on removing all perceived enemies and was less than satisfied.

At noon the same day Chowhan made the decision, he returned to his room. Instead of sitting at his desk as he usually did after lunch, he moved to watch the BBC’s coverage of the events in The Gambia. As he walked to the TV, the mirror and curtain bar that hung high above his desk fell onto where he had just been sitting.

“That thing was there for two years,” he told me recently. “And all of sudden after that judgment, it falls on me… It would have killed me.”

“So I left The Gambia, because I was quite afraid I may be assaulted.” He said he wasn’t sure the secretary wasn’t also involved. News reports at the time called his departure a “removal,” and there was no mention that he was afraid for his physical safety. He was still pondering the incident when Dawn reporters came to him for a profile five days after the incident, he said. “I didn’t want to make too much of a scandal out of that.”

Although several outlets labeled him “retired,” he was quick to correct. When he left The Gambia, he knew another job awaited him. Pakistan had just created a national commission for human rights (NCHR), and he was at the top of the list of contenders to lead it. He’s now been in the position for two years. When we met last month, that was what I really wanted to talk about.

Continue reading “How to clear a path to human rights”


2 girls, 3 introductions, 1 farewell short

I had to use the bathroom, so I asked the girls where one might be. The four of them stood in the doorway of their house, the porch of which turned into a restaurant at night. They were so giggly I couldn’t make out what they were saying. When they calmed down, I realized they were only asking my name. I answered then asked back.

I’m not the best at remembering names, especially when my business is urgent. I asked again for the bathroom, and I followed them to the back.

As we passed three large rooms, I realized the power really was out. These houses typically glow with enough color to strain your eyes, but all the walls looked black. A promising light shown from the back door, but when we reached it, I discovered it was only the moon. How was I supposed to use the bathroom?

Continue reading “2 girls, 3 introductions, 1 farewell short”


Between tourists and home

Another step and I would have taken an unplanned plunge into the ocean. So I turned around and walked the sole boardwalk on this side of the village. A house I had passed before no longer had only a woman sitting outside. A small boy, teenager, mother and uncle had appeared on the porch in the few minutes since my first passing.

As I approached, I kept eye contact with everyone, saying Hi.

The woman also kept eye contact. Hello.

The road ended.

Of course it did. Where are you from?

And the conversation had begun.

Continue reading “Between tourists and home”


Skins, noses, lakes, and jobs

We were in the middle of a lake at noon – the threat of sunburn was high. I didn’t bring sunscreen, and the week before I had badly burned in the mountains. The family I joined on the lake saw me also last week and got a kick out of a white boy turning pink.

So when I got in the flimsy, narrow boat, Ufik joked that I would turn black like him. That, or at least getting a deep tan at the end of several months, was definitely possible.

I shifted my weight too quickly and Ufik let out a little shriek. Oops. Every year there are stories of overturned boats and drownings.

Before we push off for some trip among the boathouses, he says, Don’t worry, your nose will stay the same.

Continue reading “Skins, noses, lakes, and jobs”


A school atop a mountain

I made it to the top of the mountain after a 30-minute trek, and there sat a school. It was an unlikely spot for one – not only because it lie at the top of a hill nearly impossible to climb in anything besides perfect weather, but also because there were only seven buildings within sight.

Yet it existed there for a reason.

I knew I was looking at a school in front of me, although it didn’t stand out as such among the other small shacks. Every person I asked on the way up said the only thing this direction was the school. By the third fellow traveler, I could pass off a confused question about where I was going with just “the school.”

Continue reading “A school atop a mountain”


Two Bedouin shop owners

Being bussed around in a foreign country isn’t my preferred method of travel. So when we had a free night in a touristy town in the desert, I went for a walk to find a conversation.

Outside a souvenir shop, a man stood smoking next to a rack of trinkets. After a bit of conversation about the origin of the items (they were mass-produced, he didn’t know), he invited me into the shop for tea with any friends I could convince to come. 

Of course, conversation was the lure, tea the bait, and money the goal. But I was still in control of my money and he seemed friendly enough.

Continue reading “Two Bedouin shop owners”


A call from Irfan

Perched on the edge of a rooftop cafe, distracted from my work by the shopping street three floors below still busy from weekend afternoon traffic, I received a call. This was the brick phone I used for safety while traveling in Turkey. Rarely did anyone ever call me on it.

I answered, and naturally I heard some Turkish on the other side. I thought maybe a wrong number, but from the stumbling in Turkish, I heard “Irfan from last night.”

I stiffened in my chair. I had forgotten I gave my number to him, with whom I spent 1.5 hours speaking with late the night before. Continue reading “A call from Irfan”