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All around the world, at home

Sid Ahmed makes evening prayer by the Nile in his village, El-Arish, Sudan. Sid Ahmed makes evening prayer by the Nile in his village, El-Arish, Sudan. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 14, 2009
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One evening in Ethiopia, Gebi Egato turned from his thatch-roofed hut and went to look for his donkey.

It was twilight, and the sounds of children settling for sleep murmured from one neighboring hut after another. Egato, his voice firm and full of love, called out for the donkey. The young animal was somewhere in the tight twists of brush surrounding the hilltop, but so too were hyenas.

Walking with Egato, I joined his call, using the Oromigna word I'd heard him use: "haree . . . haree."

Egato and I were young fathers who had met only days before. We appeared to have little else in common, neither nationality, nor race, nor language; not religion, nor culture, nor cuisine.

Yet with the day's dry heat broken and the wind-blown dust settled, our unexpected stroll found the rhythm of friendship. In that fold of earth so distant from my origins, I felt at home.

Home is an intensely personal intersection of geography and experience. During these past seven years, as I have wandered the world as travel writer for The Globe, I have sought above all else the intimacy that comes when meeting another person in his or her place.

Often, I arrived to talk about something far from individual: politics or architecture, for example, history or religion. In Russia, Egypt, Brazil, and dozens of other countries so far from my home, I was time and again welcomed into another.

In eastern Turkey, I sat in a living room with more than a dozen men, elders of the village of Tuzla. They had fled with their families from that fertile farm town years before, when battle between the Turkish Army and Kurdish rebels set homes aflame. On the day of my visit, the men took seats on soft pillows in a rebuilt house to consider the marriage proposal of Garip Kan, 22, who had returned from the city of Diyarbakir. Talk turned from their home toward mine: Did I have children? How old?

In Cambodia, as rain fell harder than the black of night, Sim Saem, a young mother, slept on a bed warmed by glowing coals. Her one-day-old daughter, still without a name, slept at Saem's side. I listened as neighbors chatted on the floor of the stilted hut. Some slipped small sums into the baby's silk mittens to ease her arrival into this world.

In India, Lalita Ramen stood with family in a field of cotton near the Arabian Sea. She pulled a pink shawl tight across her arms as a procession of politicians passed along a dirt road to honor the legacy of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Seventy-five years earlier, Gandhi had traveled the same road as part of his nonviolent movement for Indian independence from Britain.

"The road is difficult to walk on," Ramen told me. "They've walked on it one day. Imagine walking on it every day."

I think, too, of the village of El-Arish, on the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan. Plans for a hydroelectric dam were soon to flood the date trees that for centuries had fed those living along the riverbanks. But when I arrived on a June afternoon with Essdras Suarez, a Globe photographer, there was no talk of pending disaster. Instead, the older men of the village took turns welcoming us with trays of tea and goat's milk. One tray would arrive, and we would drink. Then another man would emerge from his home, feet steady along worn paths, to offer a tray of his own.

Once welcomed, we were part of the place: I strolled alongside Sid Ahmed as he navigated a network of trails toward the river's edge and bathed his feet in the cool of the Nile. At sunset, Ahmed faced toward Mecca and bowed in prayer, his robes whispering in the near night.

I know that difference often divides. During the time of my travels, fighting raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Colombia, Congo, and elsewhere. Yet individual encounters can create engagement of a more peaceful kind.

That is why I have sought to document intimate moments of humanity, whether desert-dweller or urban architect, powerful or poor, Muslim or Christian. By writing about such scenes, I hoped readers might find not difference of land and lives, but a more personal understanding of our common experience.

Some encounters afar began with close friends. Alessandro Gori, in Italy, introduced me to Alfredo and Luciana Barberi, retired schoolteachers who led me through the stone streets of Venzone, mapping the history of Romans, Barbarians, and others long since gone. Gabriel Dvoskin, in Chile, introduced me to Miguel Pazzos, who welcomed us to his home in the Andes for an afternoon of grilled meat and quiet conversation beneath the shade of a trellis.

The meetings of most intensity, though, were unexpected, such as that with Sergei Borisovich Lebedev. Home, for him, was St. Petersburg, and the realms of philosophy, literature, and time. Together we walked on an ice-cloaked November night from midnight toward sunrise. Near 2 a.m., between musings on World War II, Dostoevsky, capitalism, and corruption, Lebedev turned to me with a tired grin, and asked if my mother was still alive. I told him yes.

"Then you are still young," Lebedev said. "When your mother dies, you will be an adult. Your mother is the only other person who loves you for being. That is the truth."

I turn now from my traveling time at the Globe to find a more rooted home for my young family. Where, exactly, remains an uncertain journey: perhaps closer to old friends, or out in the wider world, where so many new connections wait.

In the meantime, I remember a summer morning in southern Venezuela. I followed eager migrants from a bus stop through stagnant jungle and across open earth laced with pumps and hoses, scaffolding and shanties.

At the bottom of one deep pit, three men stood waist deep in muddy water and sifted soil in search of gold. If they were lucky, their reward would not be riches, but sustenance for families perched nearby.

One of the men, his torn tank top soaked to his skin, climbed from the pit after a 24-hour shift and stooped beneath a low roof. Noontime sun beat upon rocky dirt and thick-leaf jungle. Precarious contraptions and raucous voices clamored all around.

Yet here, too, was home. In the shade of the shack, the miner held a bowl of chicken smothered in yellow sauce, but did not devour it. He rested instead on a wobbly bench, his wife and four children gathered close, and staked his claim with love.

Tom Haines can be reached at thomaswhaines@hotmail.com.