Chapter 29: I’d Rather Get a Root Canal in Mali Than Teach in the U.S.

Last year, during a severe sugar craving bout,  I found an old piece of hard candy in my desk at school. Despite the fact that this red sticky thing was probably manufactured back when Mali became a country in 1960, I still popped it into my mouth. Then it got stuck on my lower molars, and upon disengaging it I also yanked off a crown.

This is not a good situation to be in when you live in a developing country where some

My tooth, sans roots.

My tooth, sans roots.

dental work occurs roadside. But lo and behold, I discovered a Lebanese dentist (raised in Senegal) who operated a modern, dental practice in an actual building near our school, and he had a number of our students as patients. So off I went to have him reattach the old crown which I was sure would take ten minutes. Except the old crown was cracked and he needed to make a new one. And then he discovered that a root canal had not been done on that old tooth (thank you crappy Florida dentist).

So long story short, he did the root canal (even finding a 4th root which he said was rare), had a fancy new crown made in France, and made my mouth whole again…all at half the cost of a dentist in the U.S. My dentist in the U.S. checked his work and gave his seal of approval. However, this all took six lovely visits, some of which seemed like movie scenes: the time he and his wife/assistant had a huge argument in French during my actual root canal; our debate over whether I have a gag reflex or whether he just put too much of the molding material in my mouth because it touched my uvula, etc.).

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on!  photo: Snipview

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on, God!
photo: Snipview

I spent a lot of time in that dental chair, staring out the window and thinking about how I would rather be just about any other place than a dental chair. Truth be told, for me just about any other place would be preferable–a Siberian hard labor camp, a Crimson Thorn concert (Christian death metal band), a gas station bathroom, a party attended by everyone working at Fox News. I mean really, can there be worse places on this earth?

Why yes, yes there can.

My last school year in an American classroom started with a bang, and by bang I mean like being hit over the head repeatedly with a 2 x 4 until I was knocked senseless.

Usually those first few days before students arrive are when administrators pull out all the

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!  photo: Oriental Trading Company

stops to get teachers pumped up for the year ahead–spreads of artery clogging breakfast foods, singing some upbeat pop song in which the lyrics are changed to something school-related (I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas can sue whenever a faculty croons, “I’ve got a feeling, that our school’s gonna be a good school, that our staff’s gonna enforce good rules, that data’s gonna be a good tool…”), and cheap but useful gifts from the Oriental Trading Company catalog such as lanyards, water bottles, and rum. Okay, alcohol wasn’t really one of the gifts but if Oriental Trading added rum-filled key chains, I’d be all over it.

Usually there are also fun activities to inspire the faculty, help them bond, and help set the stage for creative instruction, such as determining your teaching team’s multiple intelligences or participating in a talent show (where it was immediately evident which teachers did not possess any multiple intelligences related to performing).

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength...you decide.   photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength…you decide. photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

But for this particular school year, my very last as a U.S. classroom teacher, I knew things were different the moment I entered the meeting room—or as I like to call it, the chamber of horrors. At each place setting rested a cinder-block-sized, serious looking binder stuffed to the gills with inserts and tabs. On the front was a label printed with “DATA BINDER” in all caps. A screen in the front of the room glowed with the light of an LCD projector, showing a bar graph with words and numbers too tiny to read. There was no music, no animated conversation about how thin/tan/rested everyone looked. There may have been food but I really don’t recall because the gloomy mood sucked the appetite and life right out of me.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides. photo: envisiontheamericandream.com

For the next three, grueling hours we were tortured with slide after slide of bar graphs, pie charts, line charts, histograms, and scatter plots from the school district headquarters, all showing us how crappy we were as teachers based on how low our students had scored on a single high-stakes test. Water boarding would have been easier to handle than this. Seriously, if the principal had said, “You can either watch this data PowerPoint or be shocked with raw wires attached to your private parts” I would have started attaching the copper wires myself.

The sad thing was, we all knew this test-focused mania sweeping the U.S. was hogwash, a movement led by non-educators with le$$-than-hone$t intention$. Since 2002, the law of the land told us that if we tested kids a lot (a whole, whole lot) and made teachers solely responsible for improving test scores, every kid would be “proficient” by 2014.

Yeah, not so much.

Maybe that’s why 500 education researchers recently signed a letter to Congress & President Obama saying, “We strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” Now there’s a ringing endorsement.

At the end of this first day I loaded my Data Binder cinder block into a wheelbarrow and

Hope he doesn't have to use the bathroom anytime soon.

Hope he doesn’t have to use the bathroom anytime soon. photo: jokes.naij.com

glumly shuffled to my classroom. Along the way I thought about jobs I could do that would be more pleasant, less painful. Like cleaning out clogged sewer pipes without protective gear, tarring roads in the Gobi desert in summertime, being a bicycle brick carrier, exploring the growing field of ice road trucking, or having stun guns tested on you.

It’s a wonder that I made it through that year without developing a crack addiction or multiple personality disorder. It was tough trying to understand the new normal, that our schools weren’t places for inspiring kids to learn but places that made them develop irritable bowel syndrome over constant test stress. I should have been tipped off when we were given a series of procedures to follow in case a student vomited on the end-of-year standardized test. It was no coincidence that this would be my last year in a U.S. classroom.

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time   Photo: TLC (My Strange Addiction)

So rather than go slowly insane and start eating my mattress, or hair, bricks, plastic bags, or paint pens (habits featured on “My Strange Addiction” on TLC), a few years ago Jamey and I moved to sub-Saharan Africa to teach at an international school. To ask me if teaching in an international school in Bamako, Mali is preferable to teaching in the U.S. is like asking if anesthesia is preferable to biting on a stick when you’re having you’re foot amputated.

Here’s how it went at our international school this past August during our first days before students arrived:

We began by discussing how we can strengthen our school community. Then we talked about our goals for the school year, like developing a meaningful service-learning program so our students learn as they help their local community. On subsequent days we learned about new developments in classroom technology, got a refresher on the Understanding by Design framework we use for the curriculum we develop, and had plenty of time to set up our classrooms and to collaborate with colleagues.

For the third year in a row I started the school year inspired, motivated, and full of ideas. And that was without the aid of the Oriental Trading rum. Okay, there was our Friday happy hour on the patio at the Mande Hotel, watching the sun set over the Niger River. But we weren’t drowning our sorrows as we so often did back in the States, but celebrating the start of a great school year.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about standardized testing.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about high-stakes standardized testing.

As the year has progressed, I can almost say that I’ve forgotten those scary days back in a U.S. classroom. But these memories are gone in the same way that I almost forget how I stuck my foot in a wasp nest when I was ten. For example, I’d love to forget that I heard an administrator, with regard to the annual state test, tell a colleague, “You need to get your student test scores up because right now, the assistant superintendent knows your name. And that’s NOT a good thing.” Ahhh, intimidation as motivation…the stuff memories are made of.

During my last two years in the U.S. I left the classroom to work as a resource teacher

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

with our school district, one of the largest in the country with 13,000 teachers and nearly 180,000 students. I had just been honored as the district’s Teacher of the Year, so a job at district headquarters was my attempt at a promotion to fancier digs with a higher level of respect. The first clue that I had made a judgment error was when I moved into my workspace, a windowless cubicle smaller than the closet in my former classroom. On Day Three, I discovered that my lunch bag had been removed from the lunchroom fridge and placed on top of it, plastered with a yellow sticky note saying, “This food takes up too much space.” Fancy, indeed.

But the worst part of that district job ordeal was the new teacher evaluation system implemented during my final year in cubicle quarantine. This evaluation system was two-part: half relied on your students’ state tests scores. As any ed researcher will tell you, using student high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers is unreliable and misguided, but that’s another conversation.

High tech data analysis tool photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

High tech data analysis tool
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

But what made my situation even stranger is that I didn’t have any students. I was a mere resource teacher with little exposure to actual students and just a bit of exposure to teachers—most of whom didn’t listen to me anyway because they were suffering from PTTS (Post Traumatic Test Syndrome). So nobody was sure exactly which student test data my evaluation would be based upon. Maybe the average scores of students in the entire district someone said. Maybe the student scores from the schools I visited someone else said. Or maybe they would ask the Oracle at Delphi or use a Magic 8 Ball (“Reply hazy, try again”). I would certainly trust a Mattel novelty more in this situation.

The other half of the new teacher evaluation relied on an observation system performed by an administrator. This system is a complicated mélange of domains and data marks and frameworks and elements and instructional categories and design questions. Here is part of an email I found on the district’s website, a simple little message sent to administrators about this evaluation system:

Please be advised that the Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee has released an updated Observation Schedule for Category 1B and Category 2 for the second half of the year. Twenty data marks are still required to complete the Instructional Practices Portion of the evaluation for Category 1B & 2 Teachers and the data marks are derived from the elements rated as a result of an observation and any elements rated in Domains 2, 3, and 4. Administrators can view the number of data marks scored by running the following report in iObservation: Evaluative Element Scoring by Learner.

Sidebar: The fact that this system required creating a Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee (JENC, pronounced “junk”) should give one pause.

So administrators observe teachers a bunch of times and rank their performances with a

Better pay, more respect than teaching. photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

Better pay, more respect than teaching…order up!
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

five-category scale that ranges from “this person should be working in the kitchen at the Cheesecake Factory instead of a classroom” to “this person is so good they should immediately leave the classroom to work in a closet-sized, windowless cubicle at the school district office.” Actually the categories were Beginning, Developing, Applying, Innovating, but I like my scale better. To receive the top category, Innovating, one had to “Adapt and create new strategies for unique student needs and situations.”

Again, this system was set up to evaluate teachers in the classroom so my situation as a resource teacher didn’t quite fit. Perhaps I could be judged on the way I was able to write curriculum in my cubicle within an open workspace, surrounded by secretaries chatting about green bean recipes while 20 other resource teachers talked on the phone or to each other and someone else was sharpening 250 pencils for an upcoming state test and the fax machine continuously beeped after each page it spit out from a 100-page fax.

Or maybe I could be evaluated on the clever way I camouflaged my mini-fridge (a banned appliance in cubicle world) as a box of supplies, complete with a false front that opened to reveal an array of cold beverages and my (apparently) very large lunch bag, now safe from the lunch police.

I wasn’t too concerned about the way this observation would happen, though, since just months before the district has knighted me as Teacher of the Year for my “innovative approaches in the classroom.” It was as simple as changing the suffix on “innovative” to the present participle “innovating.” I mean, once an innovator, always an innovator, right? Even though I wasn’t in the classroom I continued writing and teaching others how to use innovative, arts-integrated curriculum. I still presented innovative sessions at national conferences. Besides, wouldn’t it look pretty stupid ranking your Teacher of the Year as a moron who still hasn’t quite the hang of teaching after 8 years in inner city schools and 6 years as a national education trainer?

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker? photo: bookcoverimgs.com

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker?
photo: bookcoverimgs.com

So imagine my surprise/shock/nausea when I discovered that administrators were told that, for this first year, they should NOT award any teacher with the highest designation of “innovating.” That would leave them without room for improvement, they reasoned, without any motivation to do better. I mean, just look at how lazy Steven Jobs became after his success. Or Ben Franklin. Or Marie Curie. All slackers, every one of them. Thank goodness my own administrator fought back and in the end I was ranked as Innovating, even though my mood at the time would better be described as Loathing or Abhorring. I didn’t see those designations on the form though.

So you can understand how nostalgic memories like these don’t fade so much. The good news is that in my Life 2.0, phenomenal educational experiences are crowding out the crappy ones in my head. Here are a few recent classroom events worthy of being stored in my long-term memory:

When Lessons are More than Just Lessons

The think tank...coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

The think tank…coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

For the third year in a row my class of Grade 4 and 5 students is partnering with a local NGO, Mali Health Organizing Project, to create a health-related graphic novel for distribution to local school children. It always starts with a science unit in class that provides the kids with basic knowledge. From there they spend the day visiting the neighborhood where the school children live, a slum adjacent to Bamako. They visit a school, a clinic, and walk the dirt streets in order to understand the context of the health problems we are trying to address. Then a group of local school children visit us at our school, and collaborate with my students on the plot, illustrations, and comic software work.

The end products are professional looking graphic novels in both French and English—one on malaria prevention (The Adventures of Anti-Malaria Man) and another on rotavirus prevention Agents of HEALTH: When Rotavirus Attacks), and another one on malnutrition currently in process—that are given to hundreds of local children and just may save lives. You can see the last graphic novel here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1oBcyWe5BkyS1FCcE0teWtyNkk/view?usp=sharing

My students say the same things every year: I never realized how lucky we are and how nilbad it is for other kids. I never thought a kid could help save lives. This project makes me feel good. Can we watch Frozen?

And to think we spend about 25 total hours on this life-changing project—about the same amount of time on average that US students spend taking standardized tests and practice tests. I actually read that some U.S, schools allocate a quarter of the year’s instruction to test prep, and that some schools have daily two and a half hour prep sessions and test practice on vacation days. I vow right here and now that the last words that will EVER be in the same sentence for me will be “vacation” and “test prep.”

 Andy Warhol in My Classroom

I’m a diehard proponent of arts integrated instruction, an approach that should be welcomed in test-obsessed U.S. schools because it helps kids become critical thinkers, develops creativity and problem solving, allows kids to retain information longer, and leads to world peace (sorry, got carried away on that last one, but you never know).

Half Pint's schoolhouse.

Half Pint engages in drill-and-kill school fun.

Unfortunately if it doesn’t look like a test prep workbook or a drill-and-kill exercise that Laura Ingalls Wilder did on the prairie in 1877, it’s probably not going to be welcomed in a U.S. classroom these days. Which is why when I arrived at the American International School of Bamako, I felt like a refugee who just escaped from North Korea and landed in the middle of Candyland or Disneyworld. Sure we implement standardized tests at AISB, this one on a computer. But students spend just 2.5 hours in September doing so, and another 2.5 hours again in April. The results are immediate, so teachers can use the data as one of many measures to inform their instruction. That frees up the rest of the year for…….wait for it……actual learning! I know, it’s a radical, revolutionary approach, but I hope it catches on.

So I always hit the ground running in August, and this year Andy Warhol was with me. This

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

was going to be a Warhol-inspired kick-off that would have all the fun and excitement of pop art. I started with a Warhol quote and the door. Next the kids made Warhol-inspired portraits in which they used color to define their personalities. Then we created our classroom rules for the year, but this time expressed in Warhol-style posters. We read about his life, and how his experiences as a commercial artist and aficionado of movie star life helped him develop a unique style as an artist, then analyzed many of his works to look for references to his life experiences.

be respectful nilNow, despite the fact that of my 19 students just one speaks English as the first language at home, and that a quarter of my class had a year or less of English instruction, they all thrived during these Warhol activities—analyzing, critiquing, comprehending, evaluating–all those things standardized tests are SUPPOSED to measure. In addition, these activities fostered creativity, critical thinking, motivation, curiosity, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, and integrity—all those things standardized tests CANNOT measure.

Social Studies is Actually A Thing

Unlike my experience in U.S. schools where I heard more than one administrator say,

Live at "The Pharaoh's Court"

Live at The Pharaoh’s Court….the Master Sculptor did, I swear!

“Forget about social studies; it’s not on the state test,” I teach it daily at AISB (this last statement would raise eyebrows across the pond).We study river civilizations by exploring ancient Egypt. Students take on roles as actual ancient Egyptians (a vizier, a dancer, a tomb painter) and are challenged to solve an actual tomb robbery, something that requires them to develop their own alibis and to question suspects in “The Pharaoh’s Court” (which I must say was much more exciting than the past-due rent cases on the People’s Court).

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

To study the spread of ideas we explore ancient Greece, anchored by a daily dose of Homer’s The Odyssey. As students complete challenges (one of which involved creating a tableau scene from The Odyssey) they moved their team ship on a big wall map, following the path Odysseus took in his many adventures. Safe to say that all teams did arrive in Ithaca at the end, and were treated to a viewing of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. I’m still scared by those skeleton soldiers that grow from Hydra’s teeth that are planted in the soil.

Science Too

IMG_6625Unless you teach Grade 5 in Florida., the grade where students take a science state test, science is an afterthought at most elementary schools, usually shoved into the few remaining weeks that follow the completion of state testing. At AISB I teach it daily. Students make their own handmade books to create an earthquake survival manual for our unit on earth building and breaking. For our unit on microorganisms they engage in the service learning project described above. For our sound unit they’ll create their own outdoor sound sculpture. Students analyze songs that relate to our science themes….John Denver’s Calypso during our unit on ocean ecology, The B-52s Planet IMG_6254Claire and Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets during our unit on outer space.They act out the three types of tectonic plate movements.We watch clips of the cheesy Earthquake movie to see if it accurately portrays an earthquake.

So it’s discouraging to hear that a national 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy reported that since 2001, 44% of U.S. school districts reduced the time spent on science, social studies and the arts by an average of 145 minutes per week in order to focus on reading and math. No B-52s for you American kids! Get out that damn workbook!

 All the School’s a Stage

IMG_7065My kids engage in acting every day, well, beyond the fake No-I-really-didn’t-at-all-mean-to call-her-a-heifer-and-I-am-truly-so-sorry kind of acting. In reading, the students show their knowledge of vocabulary words or important plot points in a novel by performing quick tableaus (frozen pose). They engage in story dramatization to explore major characters and events, or to predict how characters will fare after the story ended. In science they use their bodies to demonstrate the way white blood cells attack bacteria.

IMG_7249

My clever thespians doing a tableau for the word “reflection.”

To be engaged, or not engaged, that is the question. Being engaged in so much performance work leads to confident kids who don’t know what stage fright is. I suppose that’s better than what education researcher Gregory J. Cizek discovered in studies that show how U.S. testing. produces “gripping anxiety in even the brightest students, and makes young children vomit or cry, or both.” I’ll choose performing a tableau over vomiting any day.

 Art Attack

IMG_7216

Maimouna’s Basquita-inspired art

The Grade 4 – 5 students demonstrate their learning visually too. After exploring symbolism in a novel, song, and poem, students create their own symbolic artwork. But they are challenged to do this in the style of one of the symbol-heavy artists we studied, such as Keith Haring, Marc Chagall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or the Malian artists who create carved Dogon doors. That means they have to get inside the artist’s head and embrace his approach.

IMG_6783 IMG_6767 IMG_6758Students also created cubist portraits of characters from the novel we read, Shiloh by Phyliis Reynolds Naylor.

IMG_6241In writing we explore figurative language through visual art, creating self portraits to learn about alliteration or comic strip panels to show onomatopoeia. My classroom is plastered (in a neat, organized manner, mind you) with posters of famous artworks, movies, musicians, and Broadway shows because I think these are a bit more inspiring than the pacing schedules and anchor charts about verb conjugation that I was required to post back in the USSA.

Not only does this arts-integrated approach help kids learn valuable content, it fosters creativity. Remember that stuff? Maybe not if you’re in America. A 2010 College of William & Mary study found Americans’ scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been dropping since 1990. Says researcher Kyung-Hee Kim, “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement… then they become underachievers.” That’s enough to make Haring, Changall, and Basquiat turn in their graves.

Professional Development

In my old life, professional development meant another visit from a district “specialist” with

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization.

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization, which is apparently more fun than data analysis.

a dull PowerPoint full of words in Comic Sans font, touting the latest focus/fad (“You and Data Analysis: A Match Made in Heaven”). Lots of chart paper, and if they were really fancy, lots of sticky note posting on the chart paper. At the PD session I recently led at AISB, my colleagues (all of whom weren’t even required to attend) engaged in the story dramatization of an American Indian folktale to see the connections between drama and literature.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

Our last session on standardized testing at AISB could have been dull, except for the fact that beer and wine were served (hey, it’s 5:00 somewhere). Back in the States I’d get excited about PD sessions held outside of school, like sessions in the cafeteria of a nearby high school. Yeah it smelled like old food and the tables were sticky, but at least it wasn’t the same old media center we always met in. Contrast this with my last out-of-school PD session here…in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Not only did I get to present a session on service learning, and get to meet educators from across Africa, and become addicted to Ethiopian coffee and food, but we even had a baboon-on-the-loose alert during the conference. And the cafeteria was outside, so no old food smell.

Granted, one has to consider the cost of sending teachers to conferences. But U.S. states seem to have lots of money when it comes to testing. From 2009 through 2012 Texas spent $88 million per year just to test students.

 Celebrate Good Times, C’mon!

There wasn’t much to celebrate back in my old teaching life, except maybe the end of the

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

week or the school year. But here, I celebrate on a regular basis…including Halloween. Yep, Pat Robertson and the 700 Club have not convinced international schools that Halloween is Satan’s birthday (yet) and we actually have a traditional Halloween party where kids and adults dress in whatever they want, not some stupid literary character, and enjoy trick-or-treating, a haunted house, and tons of sugar-laced food and drink.

Epilogue

Jamey and I will be leaving AISB and Mali after three adventurous and enjoyable years, and I look forward to filling my head with even more excellent memories at our new post in Shanghai. I’m happy to report that, again, I won’t need rum-filled key fobs or episodes of paint-marker-eating to get through the school year. Because I do hate the way that mauve paint stains my teeth.

Note: Thanks to the website ProCon.org for the fabulous standardized testing facts.

Chapter 28: Go Ask Alice (or Hazel, Rosario, Rosie, Mr. French, Charles in Charge, or Fati)

For many years everything I needed to know about household help I learned on TV. The

Alice always makes it better. Source: alimartell.com

Alice always makes it better. Source: alimartell.com

Brady Bunch taught me that maids wore powder blue frocks, gave you something fresh-baked when you were down in the dumps, and lived in some mystery room located in a vague part of the house (Alice rocked!).

Hazel, along with Rosario from Will & Grace, taught me that maids had smart mouths. Mr. French from Family Affair and Geoffrey from Fresh Prince of Belair taught me that butlers had facial hair and vague English accents. Charles in Charge taught me that teen idols looked great as a

Rosario lets Karen Walker have it.

Rosario lets Karen Walker have it.

nanny but probably weren’t the best choice in terms of teen girl supervision. Rosie from the Jetsons taught me that robots can totally pull off a French maid’s uniform. And really, what else does one need to know besides that?

Well, maybe a little more. My first real life exposure to a domestic happened when I was a 16-year-old exchange student in Peru. I lived with a middle class family—two teachers and their four kids—and a maid who would just sort of materialize at times. She was young, probably about my age, and unlike Hazel or Rosario, she hardly ever uttered a peep to her employers (least of all some witty, Rosario-like retort such as, “I’d ring your neck, but I don’t want to be standing in a puddle of gin!”).

Nope, this gal kept her head down, no eye contact, and kept occupied doing things like boiling stuff on the stove. Now the first time I lifted the lid off one of her boiling pots it contained everyone’s white underclothes, and the second time it was fish heads, so suffice to say I didn’t do a lot of lid-lifting after that. She also went to the market every day to buy the foodstuff we would eat at lunch and supper. I went with her once, and credit her with making me understand that guinea pigs can be pets or entrees.

Our maid in Peru, rockin' the big cuffs.

Our maid in Peru, rockin’ the big cuffs.

One day I asked my host brother Paco where this maid lived. “On the roof,” he answered matter-of-factly. I immediately envisioned her curled up in an abandoned pigeon coop or sleeping under a lean-to propped against the chimney. Then I made my way up there one day and saw that there was, in fact, a little structure that I supposed was a maid’s room and while small, was really private with a great view of the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure that Alice on the Brady Bunch would have been pleased with this scenario as she could have easily smuggled Sam the Butcher up here without anyone knowing a thing.

I later found out that maids here came from poor families and only made a few dollars each week, which is why most middle class families could afford to have one. They certainly weren’t as beloved as Hazel or even Rosie the Robot Maid, and I sometimes winced at the way the family spoke to ours. I was even told by the family one time that I shouldn’t speak with ours unless I needed her to do something. Small talk be damned!

Years passed and I moved to steamy South Florida where once again the world of household help would come alive before my very eyes. I lived just across the Intracoastal Waterway from glamorous Palm Beach, an otherworldly island of warped fantasy where the uber-wealthy had mansions on the ocean full of maids, butlers, cooks, assistants, house managers, drivers, social secretaries, dog handlers, food tasters, and tiara polishers. Here were some of the highlights of my household help encounters in Palm Beach:

Human Video Game

In my previous career as a landscape architect, I designed the front lawn area for a media mogul whose mansion sat on the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach. At the firm where I worked we rarely did residential work and now I understand why. I was given the task of creating a preliminary design, and then a few of us paid a visit to the home. We, of course, had to park in the service area and were ushered into the back door by a gaggle of housemaids wearing crisp, black and white shifts. They led us to an area inside the door where we sat on a bench, and in hushed voices they told us to cover our shoes with velvety cloth covers, not to touch the walls as we walked up the stairs, and various other instructions that would ensure no trace of mere mortals would remain once we departed.

They led us up a sweeping grand staircase, and I couldn’t help thinking how much our velvety foot covers were polishing each marble step, or how easily we could have slipped right off and plunged to our deaths where, I was sure, no trace of our blood would be left behind. At the top they led us down a darkened hallway where every door was closed. We stopped in front of a set of double doors where one maid tapped so slightly I wasn’t sure it even made a sound. The door opened and there stood the mogul and his wife, bathed in glowing light, like some Renaissance Medici portrait. They glanced at our shoes (feet covered, check) and pointed us inside the master bedroom while the maids disappeared back into the dark hallway.

Our project director made quick introductions, but there were no handshakes, probably because we didn’t have velvety hand covers. Then she quickly explained that I had roughed out an idea for the lawn that included fountains, plantings, paving crafted from baby unicorn horns, and such. I unfurled my drawing and the mogul and his wife nodded as I explained each part. Then they explained why we were in their bedroom, thank goodness, as I was beginning to think this was going to turn in to one of those “Eyes Wide Shut” party scenarios. Mr. and Mrs. Mogul felt that from the balcony off the bedroom they would have a bird’s eye view of the front lawn, and could better imagine my design in place.

There were indeed fabulous sets of glass doors across the front of the bedroom, offering sweeping views not only of the money-green front lawn, but of the sapphire blue Atlantic Ocean. For a few minutes I tried to explain where each part of my design would happen (“Now, over there by the Central American gentleman trimming your grass with sterling silver scissors will be the first statue, and over where your Labradoodle and Chihuaweiler are enjoying their pâté and finger sandwiches will be the fountain, etc., etc.”).

Then because Mr. Mogul was having difficulty imagining the new design, he asked if I might go to the lawn and indicate the exact layout of each feature. We did have marking paint in the car, sort of a powdery, neon orange spray paint we used to “draw” on the ground, so I grabbed a can and a measuring tape and headed to the front lawn.

My actual design completed, photographed by a secret drone.

My actual design completed, photographed by a secret drone.

For the next hour I was like a petite video game character controlled by the Moguls up on high. I’d spray a line and they’d shout from above, “No, no, further to the left.” And I’d kick the old line away with my foot and respray. Then, “No, too small!” and I’d scuff away the paint and spray a larger diameter circle to represent the Dom Pérignon-filled fountain. To think I had pitied the housemaids who seemed so controlled over, and now I was the one with a joystick up my rear! But in the end (haha) the design turned out great, which just goes to prove that video game characters are people too.

The Greyson Bed

I once accompanied a photographer friend on a shoot at another waterfront mansion. We had the run of the place since it was off season and this hotel-sized abode was merely a vacation house. As we were snooping, I mean, looking around for new angles to photograph, we found ourselves in the laundry complex. It was easily as large as apartments where I had lived, and included industrial sized washers, dryers, steamers, padded tables for clothes folding, an array of shiny silver irons, and some sort of medieval-looking contraption that I was sure was a torture device for maids who had disobeyed (or maybe it was a clothes presser, whatever). Of course this showroom of laundry appliances served a whopping two people (who apparently changed their clothes every 12 seconds).

Make sure the gauze curtains are tied JUST LIKE THIS!

Make sure the gauze curtains are tied JUST LIKE THIS! Source: aliexpress.com

Then, tucked on a shelf crowded with exotic detergents from Europe, we found the mother lode….a series of little wooden models of beds, complete with headboards, tiny cloth blankets, and little silk pillows. On the base of each model was a label that said “How to Make the Greyson Bed” (name changed to protect the innocent). Yep, the household staff was immune to bed-making blunders because they had a precise model to follow! We did look around for other models (e.g. “How to Wipe the Greyson Butts”) but came up empty-handed.

Merry Christmukah!

Both Jamey and I sometimes earned extra money by helping a couple of local companies decorate Christmas trees in Palm Beach for the holidays. We would arrive at a mansion with a massive evergreen imported from Lapland or wherever, then wrap the interior trunk and every branch with a gazillion white lights that could easily illuminate Carlsbad Caverns from top to bottom.

Next we’d open box after box of fancy ornaments from the Nuremberg Christmas Market

The Palm Beachers always asked for Christmas trees made of humans, but they were just too big to fit into their fancy parlors.

The Palm Beachers always asked for Christmas trees made of humans, but they were just too big to fit into their fancy parlors. Source: Flickr.com

—supplemented by box after box of even fancier ornaments we bought at overpriced local boutiques or antique shoppes—to hang on each bough, often along with fresh pears, apples, and pomegranates, as well as fresh roses and hydrangea with their stems in tiny tubes of water, as well as tiny baby reindeer that would wiggle and coo (okay, not really reindeer, but they would have if they could have).

And where were the families as all of these decorating festivities were occurring? Why, sitting on the couch watching, naturally! Apparently it’s an annual holiday tradition…the “watching of the help doing the Christmas decorating.” Which made it even a little weirder that many of these families were Jewish.

So that was my extensive background knowledge regarding household help. Mostly these were worlds I would really never be a part of, something I was reminded of each time I was scrubbing my own toilet bowl or scraping off some random, dried, really sticky substance from the refrigerator shelf. I was my own household help, without the powder blue uniform and crisp white apron Alice wore so well (although I was pretty good with Hazel/Rosario-style one liners).

So imagine my surprise when Jamey and I found ourselves in our own Downtown Abbey-like arrangement here in sub-Saharan Africa. After we had signed our contract to teach at the American International School of Bamako, we received an email explaining that we would have a guard posted at our home 24 hours/day, paid for by the school. Since we had pretty much sold everything we owned before arriving, these guards would be protecting such valuable commodities as our collection of Old Navy boxers and our rare assortment of toiletries purchased from Target (that’s tar-JAY, by the way…very French).

Our favorite Fati

Our favorite Fati

Then we were asked if we wanted to keep the maid, Fati, and gardener, Oumar, that were currently working at the house. The maid’s salary at the time was $150/month, and she worked 5 days a week, 8 hours/day cooking, cleaning, shopping, and doing the laundry. The gardener came twice a week for 4 hours at a time and was paid $50/month for cutting the lawn, planting and caring for the flowers, trimming hedges, watering, and sweeping paved areas. It took us 1.5 seconds to decide “yes.” Lady Grantham, eat your heart out!

Having household help was an interesting adjustment for us. Fati, our maid extraordinaire, certainly has made me feel like Lord Grantham. I remember that feeling I’d get back in Florida when I’d spend all day Saturday cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and taking care of the yard. I would be wiped out by evening, but everything looked so damn sparkly good that I didn’t care. I’d marvel at how shiny the fixtures looked, how the wood floors gleamed, how the yard looked so manicured. Now, that’s the feeling I get EVERY day when we return from school, except we don’t have to lift a finger and can just lounge on the sofa and eat bonbons and throw the wrappers on the floor (full disclosure: Not only do I NOT throw bonbon wrappers on the floor, I do a before-the-maid-gets-here cleaning so she doesn’t think we are cavemen).

One of the many downsides I’d discover about to doing your own housework is that two days after cleaning, everything is a mess again (I’m not blaming this on Jamey per se, but let’s just say that our ideas about cleanliness differ somewhat). Then you just start to dread the weekend when you have to do all of that housework yet again.

We fit right in.

We fit right in.

Now the dread has vanished. We come home from school each day to a sparkling clean house with tile floors so shiny we could skate on them, or at least do one of those Tom Cruise slides from Risky Business (except wearing pants because I don’t think maids should see our Old Navy boxers). The bed looks hotel-ready with plumped up pillows stacked squarely on top of each other, crisply folded edges, and the sheet turned down just so. The sinks, toilets, and showers glisten without a water spot in sight. Often there are fresh flowers on the table in a glass vase (which we now pronounce “vahz” because we are just like the Crawleys or the Moguls at this point).

Then comes the most wonderful, enticing fragrance of all: the smell of dinner that we

My favorite meal is the one someone else cooks.

My favorite meal is the one someone else cooks. Thanks Fati!

didn’t have to cook ourselves. Yep, every afternoon dinner awaits on the stove, a fully cooked meal in a sparkling clean kitchen. It’s almost like that device the Jetsons had in their kitchen, where they would press a button and a turkey dinner or massive plate of spaghetti would appear. Even better, when we finish eating we just leave the dishes in the sink, where, on the following day, we find them miraculously clean and put away in the cupboard.

But wait….there’s more! Next we wander into the bedroom where the dirty clothes from the previous day are clean, ironed, and folded. Fati even irons the socks. It’s the same with the yard. Just as the bougainvillea or the pomegranate tree or the lawn is about to appear unkempt, we come home to find it all trimmed to perfection. Our vegetable garden is planted, composted, watered, de-weeded, and harvested for us, but I still say, “Look at these tomatoes I grew in my garden!” In three years I’ve done dishes twice (emergency situation), and just a month ago I took out the garbage for the first time (I actually did not know where it went, and the guard took it for me).

Speaking of guards, we have two that take turns on 12-hour shifts. They open the garage door when we arrive or leave, carry our packages to and from the car, wash the car every day, water everything that grows, feed our cat when we are away, sweep the dirt road in front of our house, and pre-screen any visitors by ringing the bell and letting us know whose waiting outside the gate; we decide if we’ll will/won’t have an audience with the visitor (It’s all very Pope-like). The school pays their less-than-$200-per-month salaries, but we supplement that and also give them dinner occasionally because, well, we couldn’t sleep at night if we didn’t! It’s disconcerting to go from the near-bottom of the economic pyramid (lowly teachers in the U.S.) to the near top here in Mali. Our modest teaching salary, nearly 20 times higher than what Fati our maid makes, makes us the Palm Beachers of Bamako.

The sock drawer.

The sock drawer.

So before we ever make any requests, we always decide first if it is Mali-normal or Palm Beach-weird because we definitely don’t want to be one of THOSE guys. Take, for instance, sock folding. After Fati launders and irons our socks, she folds them, but individually, thenstacks them on the dresser. Now this means that I’m forced to unfold the two individually folded matching socks, put them together, then refold them as a pair before putting them in the sock drawer, which, by the way, I have arranged by colors from primary to secondary (red, yellow, blue, green, orange, purple, brown, black). Asking her to fold them as a pair and put them into the correct colored stack in the drawer? That would be Palm Beach-weird. So I do my own sock refolding, laborious as it is. We all have to make sacrifices, you know.

Audrey Hepburn and her trench coat. She has no medical conditions.

Audrey Hepburn and her trench coat. She has no medical conditions.

Unlike the help on Downtown Abbey or Will and Grace, our employees only speak French and Bambara. I’m great in both languages when it comes to greeting them, commenting on general weather conditions, and telling them I’m tired when we get home from school. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. Fati and I write notes in French back and forth nearly every morning, and thank goodness for Google Translate which sometimes is actually accurate. But when it’s not, it’s REALLY not. Like the time I translated a Fati note and told Jamey it said something about a problem with a trench coat, and we wondered why anyone would ever need a trench coat in sub-Saharan Africa, and why would she even bring up wardrobe issues with us anyway. Well, after a colleague did an actual translation, Fati was actually telling us about some medical issues she was going through. So it’s a good thing I didn’t write back something in French like, “Geez, just get rid of that trench coat and get a windbreaker—it’s Mali for God’s sake.”

And also unlike the Crawleys, we do take the time to chat with our household help every day, and get somewhat involved in their personal lives (our guard Niambele’s family picture is on our fridge). Now granted, on Downton Abbey there is no mixing of the help with the aristocrats—well, except for the chauffeur who married one of Lord Grantham’s daughters, but we don’t have a chauffeur, although we could for about what we pay the gardener. We’ve loaned/given them money (for school fees, to build a room onto a house, for driving school). On every trip we take we bring them all back a gift, and we give them a double salary during the Muslim holiday of Tabaski. We even bought a donkey for one of our guards whose previous animal was donkey-napped (it happens).

donkey3

We don’t take Fati or Oumar or Niambele or Sidibe for granted, and we certainly appreciate the hard work they do to make our lives easier (and much, much lazier). I would hope that Lord Grantham, the Bradys, Karen Walker, the Banks family, and the Jetsons felt the same way.

And I can assure you that I’ll never direct Oumar’s landscaping from my perch on the roof deck, nor create a model for Fati of our preferred bed-making style, or even have them decorate our Christmas Madagascar Dragon Tree while we watch. That’s just Palm Beach-crazy.

Chapter 27: How a Ring, a Dirty Sock, a Rusty Van, and a Cable Knit Sweater Helped Me Become a Better Traveller

During a college field trip I left my high school class ring on the bedside table of a cheap motel in Toronto. Of course the motel said they didn’t find it, and for the life of me I tried to figure out why a maid would want a not-really-gold, man’s, sort of gaudy ring featuring my initials, graduation year, and a big devil head

Satan rode side saddle on my class ring.

Satan rode side saddle on my class ring.

(No, I wasn’t a devil worshiper—it was our high school sport’s team name and one of our cheers went “If you see a devil coming then you better step aside, cause a lotta people didn’t and a lotta people died!”). If anything this experience taught me to be more cautious on vacation. And that hotel maids have terrible taste in jewelry.

A year later I was backpacking through Europe and staying at a slightly seedy pensione in Rome. Even my Frommer’s travel book said this place was shady and to keep a close eye on your things, which in retrospect was not a ringing endorsement. But hey, it was cheap and close to the bars.

When I went to take a shower I asked my traveling companion Mark to watch my things, and when I returned he was outside smoking and my backpack was a little lighter due to the $100 or so dollars that had been swiped. I went to the police station to report it and based on what you may have heard about the police in Italy (e.g. Amanda Knox) you can probably imagine how helpful and efficient they were.

A refreshing carbonated beverage or a receptacle for cigarette ashes? You decide.

A refreshing carbonated beverage or a receptacle for cigarette ashes? You decide.

Of course I held a bit of animosity toward Mark which only intensified a few days later in Athens when, returning to our cafe table from the bathroom, I took a big slurp from my Coke can only to have my mouth filled with cigarette ash. “I thought you were done with that Coke” he said as I spit spent tobacco from my mouth onto the cobbled plaza below.

A few days later, still steaming over my reduction in funds and still struggling to get the ash taste out of mouth, I dropped off my tiny stack of dirty clothes at a laundry. When I returned I noticed a sock was missing and I pitched a fit. I lectured the poor old laundress on how unscrupulous Italians were and how I would never return to this country no matter how delicious the gelato was, blah, blah, blah. Then, back at my seedy pensione I found the missing sock balled up in the bottom of my backpack where I had left it. Ah, stupid travel mistakes that make you say, “Yep, it is definitely time to move on to the next country.”

Since then I’ve been a remarkably responsible traveler, leaving nothing behind. Well, there was a gal in Vietnam whose father begged me to take her back to the U.S. as my wife, and I actually did end up leaving her behind. Jamey was having none of that Sister Wives business.

I am now a careful traveler who checks and rechecks the room or apartment before we check out, who carries a scan of my passport in case the real one is stolen, and who ALWAYS looks for balled up, dirty socks in the bottom of my luggage.

Taxi Driver 2 starring Jeff Fessler

Taxi Driver 2 starring Jeff Fessler

Until the spring of this year. That’s when I left my bag on a taxi in Tunisia, a bag that held my MacBook Pro, iPad, iPhone, camera, wallet with credit cards and cash, passport, car and house keys, and my last tin of Altoids (curiously strong!). To make matters more complicated, it was a taxi that had a pissed-off driver because we didn’t like the fare he had quoted us so we made him pull over and let us out. Yep, every traveler’s nightmare descended upon me like a dust storm in the Sahara.

Our Tunisia trip had started off without a hitch. Jamey, our school director Caroline, and I

Ancient Rome, when bathroom time became a spectator sport!

Ancient Rome, when bathroom time became a spectator sport!

spent a few days with friends in Tunis shopping in the maze of the medina and exploring the ancient Roman cities of Carthage and Dougga, where we saw the interesting Roman invention of public toilets where you sat hip-to-hip on a stone bench (with carved out holes) along with other townsfolk doing your “business” as you chatted away. Then we took a train to an ocean side condo in a beach town called Sousse where unfortunately I was a bit under the weather—aches, sore throat, fever.

On departure day I was still groggy but coherent. We rode in a shared van for the 2-hour trip to Tunis. It was full, a little warm, and the driver was playing some Tunisian-style

music—sort of like what they play in the background on “Homeland” when Clare Danes visits the Middle East—kind of that chanting/whining/repetitive stuff that made me extra woozy. I dozed off and on.

When we arrived in Tunis at the busy shared van station, a bystander directed us to a taxi driver who could take us to the market for some last-minute shopping. There was a lot

Cue exotic chanty/whiny music. Photo: collider.com

Cue exotic chanty/whiny music.
Photo: collider.com

going on around us–van/taxi guys with moustaches talking and laughing loudly, people selling gum and drinks and phone cards, passengers loading and unloading, Clare Danes being chased by terrorists (that last one was just a fever-induced vision but it seemed lifelike). It was a lot to take in and I appreciated the quietness of the taxi once we plopped inside.

As taxi driver guy took off, Caroline asked him to turn on his meter and he said in French, “It’s a fixed rate to downtown” and quoted some crazy price that was probably his rent for the month plus the cost of grooming his moustache. We said the whole “no, no, no, pull over now” thing, hoping he would do the old “okay, I’ll turn on the meter” thing. But he wasn’t having it. He pulled over and we jumped out, grabbed our things from the trunk and away he zipped down a side street. We showed him who is boss

That’s when I realized my shoulder bad was not on my shouder. Now when I am in a normal state of mind, I follow routines: small rolling backpack with clothes and toiletries always goes in the trunk, shoulder bag with all my valuables stays with me, slung over my shoulder. But apparently in my semi-sick state I had put the shoulder bag in the trunk as well, and neglected to retrieve it during our hasty departure. And that’s when I turned into a crazy person.

The taxi containing a mini version of an Apple store was long gone with the dark haired driver with a moustache wearing a sweater. I ran frantically the one block back to the shared van station where a million more taxis had suddenly appeared, each driven by a mustachioed man with dark hair wearing a sweater.

I ran up and down the middle of the street peering into every taxi, eyes wide and mouth

WHERE IS MY SHOULDER BAG?! photo: dailydead.com

WHERE IS MY SHOULDER BAG?!
photo: dailydead.com

open, very similar to what the zombies look like on The Walking Dead just before they tear into a human neck. I’m sure the other taxi drivers thought I had inhaled bath salts and was trying to eat them.

Fortunately my bizarre behavior attracted a crowd of the van guys who I figured either wanted to assist the odd, helpless American, or wanted to put a crowbar through the skull of the undead creature attacking the shared van station. Fortunately they wanted to help me and they began asking (in French) what had happened.

Now at this point I’ve finished my Rosetta Stone French course and can use French for the basics—ordering at a restaurant, asking for gas at the Total station, inquiring where the extra large bottles of Bombay Sapphire are located at the bottle shop, and such. But of course in my reduced state of mind all I could think of in French was “Je vais jouer au tennis avec Denise?” (I am going to play tennis with Denise) which was a sentence I learned in 6th grade French class at my elementary school. And sports-related statements were definitely not going to help me get my bag back.

The best I could do was put a strained look on my face, repeat “passport, passport” about 600 times, and point to the taxis zooming by until they figured out I had left important things in a cab. “What was the number on the taxi?” they asked. “Taxis have numbers on them?” I wondered. “What did the driver look like?” they asked. “Uh, exactly like all of you guys,” I thought but didn’t say. Meanwhile Jamey and Caroline were calling my iPhone to see if the taxi clone guy would pick up, but no dice.

At this point a nice man with dark hair, moustache, and sweater took me by the arm and

Jump in my van and I'll show you the town!

Jump in my van and I’ll show you the town. Photo:lostpedia.wikia.com

said he was taking me to the police station around the corner. He explained (I think) that I needed to file a report. I asked Jamey and Caroline to wait for me, and off I went with a guy I didn’t know in his old van with the broken driver-side door that required him to enter on the passenger side, a guy I could barely communicate with but who seemed kind. I remembered that Dr. Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs also seemed kind at first.

Tunis was alive with traffic at this time, and we were soon stuck in a long, long line of exhaust spewing vehicles. I kept asking if we were close (after all, he said the station was just around the corner) but we kept driving. He stopped several times to ask people questions and I tried to decipher his Arabic words. Maybe he was asking for detailed directions? For a traffic report? Or which tailor could make a suit of my skin?

Dark hair...check! Moustache...check! Big gun...yikes! photo: onenomadwoman.com

Dark hair…check! Moustache…check! Big gun…yikes!
photo: onenomadwoman.com

We finally pulled up in front of a windowless concrete building, and in seconds a policeman with a moustache and dark hair was yelling at us to move the van. Driver guy backed up on a one-way street the wrong way as he cursed (I think). All I could think of saying in French was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” As we exited the van (both of us from the passenger side of course) the policeman came out again and had an exchange with driver guy. He motioned me back into the van and off we went down the street.

I tried my best to ask what happened and where we were going now, and I think he was saying “wrong place.” So back into heavy traffic in our un-air conditioned van, with me saying “I’m sorry.” The next stop was a massive grey building, maybe 10 stories tall, surrounded by concrete pylons and many policeman with dark hair and moustaches. Driver guy tried to pull between two pylons but the policemen came running and again they all exchanged words. I did make out “passport” in the spray of words.

stupid

photo: oddee.com

Back into heavy, rush hour traffic. Wrong place again I assumed. As we crept through the traffic I kept thinking about the repercussions of this loss of items: cancel tomorrow’s flight, go to embassy for new passport, miss school, get new flight, cancel credit cards, tattoo “STUPID” on my forehead…the list went on and on.

The driver guy veered into a shady,

Now, get out the van and DANCE! photo: yaplog.jp

Now, get out the van and DANCE!
photo: yaplog.jp

narrow alley that didn’t look at all like a place where a police station was located, but more like a place where thieves or mafia or gangs met to plan a heist/a hit/a big dance number between the Jets and the Sharks. We walked into a darker passage off of the alley stacked with boxes and garbage, then entered a doorway.

jail

If only Deputy Fife had been in Tunis to help me. photo: commons.wikimedia.com

I first saw jail cells—sort of a cross between the ones on the Andy Griffith Show and the ones in Midnight Express. They were empty, at least for now. We passed through a dark hallway and turned into a small room packed with Arabic-speaking people and a twentyish, model-handsome guy with the thickest, shiniest, waviest hair who was wearing a cable knit sweater, super slender fit khakis, and really great pointy oxfords. He pointed to two empty chairs and we sat down.

I just watched him type away at a computer as he asked questions of the various guys in the room, all of them speaking in Arabic or French. Then he turned to me and said in perfect English, “So, how can I help you today?” English! And a cable knit sweater! And good hair/shoes. Everything was going to be alright.

I explained what had happened and he typed away. He kept assuring me that I would indeed get everything back. “Just last week an Iranian woman left her purse in a taxi and she got it back, and the week before a Kenyan man left his computer in a taxi and it was returned.” Maybe I would also become a story (“Just last week this crazed American left the contents of an Apple store in a taxi trunk…”)

robot

I liked my iPhone so much better when it wasn’t an evil robot. photo: science.howstuffworks.com

I just nodded though, knowing he was only trying to make me feel better with reassuring words. I knew that by now my electronics had been sold on the black market and were being disassembled to make drones or evil robots, and that my credit card was purchasing endangered panda steaks and cartons of filterless cigarettes and fake Louis Vuitton bags. I could picture someone adding a moustache and dark hair on my passport picture.

Here, sign this!

Here, sign this!

At this point GQ guy printed out what he had typed, two pages completely in Arabic that he had me sign. Of course they always say to never sign anything you can’t read. I wondered if I had just registered to be in the Tunisian Air Force or signed up for a stint as an indentured servant picking figs. But something about that fashionable ensemble made me trust this young guy, so sign I did. “You’ll get it back,” he again assured me as we left. “Hmmm, hope they enjoy the panda steaks,” I thought.

Driver guy and I zipped back to the shared van station, and the whole way I kept saying merci, merci beaucoup, you are a very nice man, etc., etc. It was Rosette Stone Basic French Chapter 1, but it was heartfelt. As we neared the station I spotted Caroline and Jamey, and waved to let them know I was still alive and that my skin was intact and that I wasn’t going to be in the Tunisian military after all, and I saw Caroline waving something in the air. It was my bag.

Yep, shortly after I had left on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through Tunis, the original taxi driver had finally heard my phone ringing in the bag in the trunk, answered it, and promised to drive back with the goods. It had taken him a couple of hours to do so, but everything was there. I gave both driver guy and original taxi guy big tips, and in my sketchy French tried to say that Tunisians were really, really nice people and that I would never forget their kindness and that I really wasn’t the incompetent fool I appeared to be. I’ll admit I had a bit of a lump in my throat. Fashionable police guy had been right all along.

So while I was impressed with Tunisia’s beautiful sights—ancient Roman ruins, bustling outdoor markets, gorgeous North African architecture, communal Roman toilets and the like, that’s not what I’ll take away from this trip in terms of memories. Nope, I’ll mostly remember a beat-up van driven by a kind mustachioed guy, a jail in a dark alley, and a young police official with GQ looks who convinced me that (a) people in Tunisia are honest and (b), you can still rock a cable knit sweater even when you work in a jail.jeff

 

Chapter 26: Pets on the Menu, Organ Harvests, & Zombie Hotels: Scissor Dancing My Way Through Travel Nightmares

At age 16 I applied to be an exchange student, in which one leaves the familiar comforts of high school life to live with another family in a foreign country. On the application I was asked to list three countries where I preferred to go, and I jotted down France, Australia, and Switzerland. Then I sat back and planned how I would either eat croissants under the Eiffel Tower while wearing a beret, or dress my pet koala in clothing inspired by Aboriginal paintings, or learn to yodel with Heidi, Girl of the Alps.

Well I was assigned to Peru, which I soon found out was not in Europe or even remotely near Oceania. And I was almost positive that it would not involve stylish hats, marsupials, or

Welcome to the country where dancing with sharp tools is encouraged!

Welcome to the country where dancing with sharp tools is encouraged!

Alpine singing. What I did know about Peru came from a report I wrote on that country in grade 5, and again I’m pretty sure I was assigned to research that country after all of the “good” ones (e.g. France, Australia, and Switzerland) were taken by my classmates. I remembered doing an illustration of the Peruvian “scissor dance,” and I was hoping like hell that I wouldn’t be forced to perform something where dancers “in a surge of force and elasticity, test their skills with a gymnastics-like jump at the sound of a harp and a violin, while they cut the air with their scissors, one in each hand.” No two ways about it, that just sounded dangerous.

As it turned out, I experienced some amazing adventures on par with beret-wearing and Alp yodeling, adventures that I still fondly recall to this day. I mean seriously, how many 16-year-olds get to hike an ancient Incan trail in the Andes for three days to reach the famed

One of the less horrifying moments of my time in Peru.

One of the less horrifying moments of my time in Peru.

15th century ruins of Machu Picchu? When I think of Peru today my memories play like a beautiful foreign film backed with a classical soundtrack: me chewing on a chunk of sugar cane while walking to the beach with friends, my 16-year-old self dancing and drinking in a sparkly disco in Lima, watching the golden sun rise over the stone buildings of Machu Picchu. No scissor dance though—the Peruvians I asked had not even heard of it. Damn you World Book Encyclopedia!

The thing is, though, most of the stories I tell about my life in Peru are less about rainbows and sunshine and more about events that at the time horrified me. There was the time at dinner when we had a plate of meat, something my Peruvian family didn’t serve very often due to the expense. It was accompanied with a side dish of tiny pillow-like things stuffed

Had they served it like this, I might have had a clue. Photo: homohabitus.org

Had they served it like this, I might have had a clue. Photo: homohabitus.org

with some sort of vegetable concoction that popped when you bit into them. Like the culturally sensitive boy I was, I ate everything provided. But I always asked what it was AFTER the fact, when the foodstuff had already safely made it down my esophagus. On this occasion they told me I had eaten cuy, which my Spanish-English dictionary later revealed was America’s beloved pet, the guinea pig. Oh, and those pillow things? Stuffed guinea pig intestines. No lie. I quickly looked up the Spanish words for poodle and parakeet for future reference.

Sure, at the time this was a horrifying, oh-my-god-I-ate-something-you-can-buy-at-PetSmart moment. But then a few months passed and all those “bad” times turned into great stories that have made me a cocktail party favorite ever since. Everybody has already heard stories about the to-die-for meal someone enjoyed at a restaurant with two Michelin stars, but when it comes down to it isn’t it more entertaining to hear about a guy who ate rodent intestines?

Peru provided me with an endless arsenal of humorous stories that weren’t so funny at the time. Like the eight-hour, overnight bus ride from Lima to my city of Trujillo–on an

Photo: blog.strayboots.com

Sir, my chicken would like a window seat. Photo: blog.strayboots.com

unairconditioned, rattling heap of metal they called a bus, obviously without shocks, that smelled like spoiled meat mixed with diesel and sweat, and that made my old school bus in the US look like a luxury yacht. On different occasions I rode next to a cage of chickens, a screaming baby covered in tiny pink bumps, and a singing, drunk guy who smelled like a dirty diaper. Once another bus broke down in front of us, and we literally drove into the back of it over and over again, bumping it down the road for the next several miles to a repair shop.

Or there was the flight from Miami to Lima on now-defunct Braniff Air before the smoking ban on airplanes was in effect. I chose the no smoking section. When I got to my seat I saw that the smoking section began in the row behind me. As I once read somewhere, “A smoking section on an airplane is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.”  So as soon as we were in the air and the illuminated cigarette symbol went off, acrid white clouds filled the air for the duration of this overnight flight. I definitely felt like I had smoked two cartons of Pall Malls by the time we landed. Seriously I would have rather been on that bus with the poultry.

If Peru taught me anything about being in a foreign country (aside from the fact that guinea pig tastes like chicken) it’s that however dreadful a situation may seem at the time, you’ll get a whole lot of mileage out of it later. Once we landed at night in a tiny airport in rural

Finally in Cambodia with our organs intact.

Finally in Cambodia with our organs intact.

Cambodia, only to discover that the guide we had hired forgot to pick us up, and that we had not written down the name of our hotel. Rather than panic, we paid what looked like a pre-teen boy in a rusty Toyota to slowly drive us through the streets of the town while we looked at every hotel sign hoping it would ring a bell. Twelve-year-old-driver boy kept stopping to talk to groups of shady characters on the roadside, and we were sure he was trying to find someone to harvest our organs or looking to sell us to someone as sex slaves (we should be so lucky). Of course I also recount our hot air balloon ride above the Cambodian ruins of Angkor Wat at sunset, but organ harvesting is so much more engaging than sunsets.

Our Iceland experience involved a magical swim in the Blue Lagoon, an azure, naturally

Where is my damn Icelandic pony?

Where is my damn Icelandic pony?

heated lake surrounded by ice and snow. But I mostly tell about how Jamey and I, jet lagged beyond belief, fell asleep mid-meal at a restaurant, forks in hand, until the waiter tapped us on the shoulder. Or when an Icelandic pony possessed by the devil made my “leisurely afternoon ride across the volcanic plain”(the words in the brochure) into a “harrowing gallop across icy streams and over barbed wire fences.”

For this past winter break holiday, we headed to the Cape Verde islands with two colleagues from school, Caroline and Abby. This trip was definitely right up our alley—an exotic locale off the beaten path, good beaches, unique culture, relatively inexpensive airfare.  We visited four of the ten islands over 15 days, spending Christmas on a volcanic island with black sand beaches and New Year’s Eve in the party-hearty cultural capital of Mindelo. I regularly posted my photos on Facebook throughout the trip where I showcased stunning ocean views, strange volcanic landscapes, and candy-colored Portuguese architecture.

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But enough with the frou-frou. Let’s get to the bad stuff!

Taped & Ready for Departure

The four words you never want to hear upon arrival at the airport are, “L’avion est déjà parti.” (Your plane already left). But that’s how our Cape Verde trip began. We arrived

"In the event of an emergency, please make sure the duct tape is secure…"

“In the event of an emergency, please make sure the duct tape is secure…”

three hours early for what we thought was our 1:00 AM departure time, only to discover that Air Senegal, or as I like to call them, Air YouSuck, had moved the departure three hours earlier without notifying our travel agent. So it was back home for a night of frantic emails/calls/texts with hotels we had booked and with the travel agent, and a rebooked flight for the next day. I was thinking things could only get better, until we boarded the Air Senegal flight the next day and noticed the duct tape holding up the ceiling panel over our heads.

Hotel Hell

zombie-hotelAfter the departure debacle we were more than anxious to get to Cape Verde. We started on the island of Santiago where the main airport handles the initial flights into Cape Verde and flights to the other islands. After getting our visa, a glacially slow process handled by a young policewoman who evidently had a brain transplant with a sloth, we found the driver from our hotel waiting for us, and he ushered us into a small bus. This was just a one-night pit stop as we had a flight to catch early in the morning to another island.

I’m not sure how on a spit of land that from the air appears to be no larger than Gilligan’s Island, the drive to a hotel can take 40 freaking minutes. But it did, and the only thing that could have been worse would be winding, bumpy roads, and a hotel smack dab in the middle of a haunted forest full of zombies. Which it was. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating with the zombies, but still.

I’m sure the inky darkness didn’t help, but this place could definitely be a set for The Walking Dead, from the abandoned-factory-looking buildings to the zombie-like reception

If only we had seen this when we checked in….

If only we had seen this when we checked in….

staff. Our room looked like the maid had been grabbed by zombies mid-cleaning—desk chair on top of the desk, bed not completely made, toilet paper sitting on the sink, half-eaten finger on the floor (I may have dreamed that last one). The girls’ room featured a half glass of water sitting bedside, so it looks like their maid was eaten by the undead as well.

The next morning at our 5:30 AM checkout we discovered (a) one of the clerks sleeping in the bus, (b) the clerks couldn’t work the hotel credit card machine, and (c) the bus transport cost twice what we had been quoted, nearly as much as the room cost. Fortunately we escaped without being bitten by a single zombie, so I guess every grey cloud does have a silver lining.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll, in the Bad Way

We flew into the island of Sao Vicente mid-trip, our chosen spot to celebrate New Year’s Eve. We heard that it can get a bit windy on the islands and I can assure you that’s a very credible statement. We were scattered around in different spots in the cabin of Cape Verde Air, and I sat next to a young lady who seemed nervous from the get go. As we approached for landing the plane began to rock and roll (and I don’t mean that metaphorically) and this gal gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. I was concerned—not so much for her well-being, but for the possibility of vomit splash.

airsickOur final approach seemed to go on an excruciatingly long time, with nothing but pitch blackness outside. So I knew my seatmate’s esophagus had plenty of opportunities to reverse its muscle direction and bring her supper back for a visit. By this point I’m pretty sure everyone on the plane was thinking about the underseat floatation devices and life vests (“I put mine on first, THEN my child’s vest, right? Wait, do I pull the cord when I’m in the water or before? Crap, why did I do the crossword instead of listening to that flight attendant?”). Well, finally we touched down, or rather sort of dropped hard like an iPhone hitting the sidewalk. Thank goodness I didn’t know the runway looked more like someone’s driveway, about 12 feet long.

Scalp Afire

On the isle of Sao Vicente we anxiously looked forward to New Year’s Eve. Our guesthouse owner explained that this was the most festive time of year, and my ears always perk up when “festive” is part of a sentence. “There will be dancing in the streets,” she said, “and fireworks over the bay, followed by a big concert in the main square.” We were ready to celebrate Cape Verdean style.

By the time we left our guesthouse for dinner it was 9:30 PM, and we were kicking ourselves knowing that we would be battling crowds to eat. Except that the streets were deserted. Empty. Like the end of the world had happened and we were smack in the middle of 28 Days Later, but without those extremely peculiar, fast-moving zombies (though I did check out every dark alley we passed).

Obviously we walked right into a restaurant where a number of other tourists (survivors?) were eating. At 11:30 we reentered the still-empty streets, looking for something supernatural (Chupacabra? Portal to hell?) to explain why we seemed to be the only ones with a heartbeat for miles. We wandered down to the empty waterfront where the fireworks were supposed to happen, and again, crickets.

Then, at about ten minutes to midnight, the silence ended. Locals started to appear from

Look at beautiful pyrotechnics…oh wait, that's your hair on fire.

Look at the beautiful pyrotechnics…oh wait, that’s your hair on fire.

around every corner in droves, kind of like the start of a big dance number on Glee. Within minutes we were wedged into a massive crowd of Cape Verdeans wearing their tightest, neon, sparkly outfits.  And right at the stroke of midnight the fireworks exploded—except not over the bay. Nope, right over our heads. And when I say “right over” I mean close. Like hot-cinders-fell-on-us close.

Now granted Cape Verdeans enjoy one of the more robust economies of all the African countries, but it’s still Africa. So we aren’t talking big budget, Bellagio Hotel in Vegas/Disney style fireworks with exploding 3-D peace signs and glittering sparkles spelling things out. These fireworks here were similar to what the average suburban American family might buy at a roadside tent and shoot off their backyard deck after eating BBQ. There was the red starburst, the white one, and maybe a green (just one). But the cool thing was that after each explosion, the crowd would cheer and shout Portuguese things, probably translating to “Awesome!” and “Amazing!” and “Ouch that burned my scalp!” It made us appreciate the pyrotechnics even more, even though we smelled burnt hair and worried that the possibility of a face transplant could be in our future.

The street party went on until 6:00 AM, with the main concert stage just a tiny two blocks from our guesthouse. We stayed at the festivities until 2:00 AM, which to us is sort of like staying up all night. Back in bed, noise cancelling headphones and a Tylenol PM did the trick.

Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat

One of the islands we wanted to visit was accessible only by ferry from Sao Vicente. Apparently the strong winds made landing a plane impossible on the island, and the airport had closed in the 1990s (because, Google told me, a plane taking off crashed and killed all 30 people aboard). So the ferry it was.

Now keep in mind that I’m not new to water-related transportation. I’ve taken a speedy hovercraft from England to Belgium, rode a big ferry from Italy to Greece, floated on a Mississippi riverboat, chilled on a sailboat around the Bahamas, and experienced the terror of the Log Flume ride at Six Flags. When I’m on board watercraft of any sort I don’t get seasick and I never worry too much about a Titanic-related incident.

So on this ferry ride, the Atlantic appeared calm upon departure, and I reassured Abby (who was not fond of ferry rides) that it was smooth sailing ahead for our one-hour trip. Then a guy started passing out black plastic vomit bags and I thought, well, at least they weren’t transparent. “Just a precaution,” I said to Abby. The waves were present, but not really in a vomit-inducing way. Other than a German dude’s hiking pole (protruding from his backpack) ramming into my temple, the trip was okay.

Wave to me: You ain't seen nothin' yet...

Wave to me: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet…

But coming back that afternoon was another story. After ten minutes at sea the wind picked up and the waves began kicking and I started having visions of Clooney on that little boat in The Perfect Storm. I began to make contingency plans: shoes off before we’re under water, grab life preserver that nobody sees behind the garbage can, raid bar just before ship goes under, paying particular attention to top shelf items, etc. I’m pretty sure liquor bottles can be used as flotation devices in the event of an emergency.

We were sitting out on deck, so I could see firsthand how the waves were making our ferry list more than I believed a ferry should. First I’d see the blue sky and clouds, then tip, tip, tip I was looking at nothing but dark ocean water. Then tip, tip, tip and it was all sky again. This wasn’t the kind of gentle rocking that lulls one to sleep. This was carnival ride-ish craziness that makes you wonder how long you could tread water in a cold ocean.

The people who minutes before were chuckling and drinking beer were fake-laughing,titanic clutching on to anything affixed to the deck, and trying to keep that beer down. Another lady with eyes that said “I’m terrified” held a lime to her nose for the entire hour trip (I’m assuming this is some sort of natural seasickness remedy, or she was just cuckoo, or she adored citrus.). A toddler–whose dad had let him drink a full juice box before departure—showered everyone around him with juice-flavored vomit. This was about the time I expected to hear “mayday, mayday” or that goose-honk of a horn that continually went off as the Titanic as the went down.

But as quickly as this all started, it ended as soon as we got within five minutes of shore. Nevertheless,  I won’t say that I ran off that ferry but I may have crawled over a baby stroller in my haste to exit. Had I known the scissor dance I would have performed it right at that moment, showing my strongest surge of force and elasticity and gymnastics-like jumps while cutting the air with my scissors, one in each hand. Hey, at least it’ll make a good story.

Chapter 25: A Tale of Two Cities (and Two Types of Poo)

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 1.33.30 PMWe just spent our fall break in the south of France.  Now this is a statement that, up until a year ago, I would’ve uttered only if I was (a) alcohol impaired and hallucinating after a night of tasty gin and tonics, or (b) miraculously transformed into Thurston Howell III or Kim Kardashian. As luck would have it, I now didn’t need to be under the influence of alcohol nor turned into a fake TV millionaire or a, well, a fake TV millionaire.

Nope, now that we are teaching in an international school in the middle of nowhere–or Mali, as they call it—our new normal involves getaways befitting of a Beckham or a Bieber—and we don’t even cavort with Spice Girls or monkeys. That’s because for us, living and teaching abroad provides all kinds of advantages that make life more enjoyable, such as tax-free income, cost-free housing, and duty-free liquor at every airport we pass through to get here.

When there’s a break from teaching here at school, we have the means to do more than what we use to do in our old PM (Pre-Mali) life, which was to eat at a chain restaurant and watch NetFlix. And when I say a break from teaching, there are breaks aplenty here because along with the typical American holidays we also celebrate Malian, Muslim, and African holidays. There’s a day off for the Prophet’s birth birthand another for his baptism, and another to honor him by killing a sheep, a couple of days off for Malian Independence day, some more for Africa Day, and the list goes on. Sometimes after one day off, government officials randomly come on the local evening news and call for an additional day off, just for the heck of it. They always keep you guessing in Mali.

Our longer stretches of free time include a fall break (which, paired with Halloween festivities, turns October totally into woman-cleaning-groutRocktober for me), winter break (Xmas, Hanukkah, et al), spring break, and summer break. We barely return from one holiday and we are already planning for the next trip in a month or so. Back in the U.S., school breaks mostly meant more time for doing some god-awful, long overdue household chore, and I’m sure you can guess if we prefer sunning ourselves in Provence or reapplying caulk and cleaning mildewy grout in the bathroom.

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I think she’s shouting a curse word….

And because we actually save money here (a concept that wasn’t possible in America when working as a teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida), we are able to travel, and I mean really travel. Not driving-2-hours-to-a-theme-park kind of travel, but going-to-a-foreign-country kind of travel where the castles are 500 years old and not made of fiberglass and filled with unnaturally thin Disney princesses. (Sidebar: I once clandestinely went underground at DisneyWorld with a friend who worked there, and met a foul-mouthed gal who portrayed Snow White and a gay, African-American little person who portrayed Mickey Mouse. Now that is some Disney magic.).

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Ady, Ady, Ady! (she’s the one with the colorful hair)

So far we have jetted off to Ghana, Senegal, Portugal, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Illinois, Florida. and the Provence region in the south of France—and that’s just in the 15 months we’ve lived in Mali. For winter break this year we are off to the Cape Verde islands, which I hadn’t even heard of until I watched the 2012 Summer Olympics on TV and saw Adysângela Moniz (I just call her “Ady”) of Cape Verde compete in women’s judo.

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Bamako to Aix-en-Provence in a day…the wonders of the modern world.

One of the best things about all of this travel is the absolute total contrast of Mali with the other countries we experience. One evening we were walking along an orange dirt road in Bamako, passing donkeys and women with massive bundles of sticks on their head, and hearing the call to prayer in the distance. And before lunch the next day we were parading down the fancy street of Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, France, relaxing in the shadow of towering plane trees while eating lavender ice cream, trying to decide which French cologne to purchase. It wasn’t too long go when my ten-year-old self was amazed just taking the ten-minute ferry ride across the Mississippi River from my grandma’s tiny town of Meyer, Illinois to the town of Canton, Missouri.

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I think I see Brad in the upstairs window….

Now if I could create a magical dream world from scratch, I would carpet it with purple flowers, include fields of wine grapes, surround the fields with hills holding quaint medieval villages, perfume the air with the scent of lavender, give Brad Pitt a home there, and make stores give away a free pair of shoes everyday to every citizen. Well, except for the shoe thing (damn it), Provence is exactly everything I had dreamed of. I’m just glad that the lavender fields were not in bloom while we were there because that last bit of gorgeousness would have made my head explode all over those purple blooms.

Everything about Provence was perfect. Through Airbnb we found an apartment in the IMG_0897heart of Aix perfectly befitting of a perfect town. It had timber beams across the ceilings and a terrace overlooking the tiled roofs of the town. Okay, it was 73 stairs up from the street and once inside, it required another 13 stairs to get from the bedroom to the living room. I admit that could be perfectly horrible for some people. But the view from the terrace was divine, especially once my heart returned to beating normally and allowed my eyes to more clearly focus. And besides, a couple of glasses of local wine made me forget all about the stair climb.

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My new shoes, better than papal history.

The shopping in Provence was pretty magical too, especially when you live in a country where we buy shirts on the side of the road from vendors who hang them from tree branches (after a purchase you have to vigorously shake each shirt to remove the two pounds of orange dust before laundering twice—and then they’re still a little dusty).  When we walked into the H&M store in Aix-en-Provence, I literally stopped to savor the clean retail-air smell, that unforgettable scent of new clothes and whatever cologne they are pushing. If they made a cologne with that retail smell I’d wear it. During a day tour to Avignon we were given free time to see the Palace of the Popes and instead we spent the whole time in one shoe store. I mean, seriously, you can’t wear history on your feet.

Even the Aix grocery stores looked lavishly stocked and sparkly and huge, but again my 19. cu o furnica mai sexyreference point is our Lebanese-ish Bamako supermarket whose name  translates to “The Ant” with a logo of a human-bodied woman with an ant head, and she/it is pushing a shopping cart. I think we spent as much time in the French grocery stores as we did in the French art museums. Yeah, yeah, a former 15th century church full of Van Gogh paintings is amazing, but can you buy salt and vinegar potato chips there?

We did the whole Provence circuit, booking several one-day trips into the surrounding idyllic countryside, the same stomping grounds where Brangelina and family frolic around their 35-bedroom estate with adjoining 1,200-acre vineyard, which they purchased last year for a cool $60 million.

Brad Pitt may have touched this bottle.

Brad Pitt may have touched this bottle.

They must find this place extra magical too because their rose wine was just crowned best in the world by Wine Spectator magazine. When it was released in March, all 6000 bottles sold out in five hours, a fact our guide for the day proudly reiterated. So next year, put in your orders early.

It just so happened that two other couples booked the same day trips as we did. We always enjoy getting to know new folks who share our love of travel and adventure. We do find, though, that people don’t share our exact version of what travel and adventure means. When we first told these two couples (husband and wife dentists and a retired couple from New Jersey) where we lived and worked they thought we said “Bali,” and they said “oooh” and “ahhh” and “Lucky you, right on the beach!” Upon learning that we actually said “Mali,” they paused for a moment to think. Then they added, “Did you actually choose to go there?” and “How long do you have to stay there?” and “Where exactly is that?” When the retired couple, who was staying in Marseilles, said they found that city to be “unrefined,” we decided not tell them that in Bamako we’ve seen local toddlers pooping on the dirt road leading to our school.

Excrement stories aside, we are still thrilled to call Mali home right now despite the fabulousness of Provence. Sure it was great to experience Internet speeds that allowed us to watch a two-minute YouTube video without letting it buffer for 45 minutes first. And walking down a sidewalk versus a dirt road with an adjacent open drainage/sewer channel does feel very civilized–though in Provence there did seem to be an awful lot of French dog poo on the sidewalks (Sidebar: On this trip we discovered that the French don’t call French Poodles “French” or “poodle,” but “caniche”). But as much as we adore Provence, we adore Mali just as much—but in slightly different ways.

Sure Provence has a rich history, with Celt, Greek, and ancient Romans colonizing the IMG_0743area at different times, and magnificent castles and churches dotting the countryside. But in the 14th century, when half of the folks in Provence were dying from the black plague and the towns were surrounding themselves with defensive walls and towers after losing the Hundred Years’ War, the Malian Empire had reached its largest size, a whopping

Wanna fight?

Wanna fight?

440,000 square miles with over 400 cities and towns (only the Mongol Empire was larger). It was flush with gold, the source of half of the Old World’s gold supplies, and a major supplier of salt and copper. It had an army of 100,000 that I’m sure could have given an ass-whuppin’ to those fancy-pants French soldiers.

And sure, Provence is beautiful and who the heck wouldn’t want to live there in a 35-room mansion overlooking 1200 acres of grape vines with your 1200 adopted children. But I have to say, sometimes when I look out my classroom window and see the Niger River sparkling in the foreground and the massive baobab trees on the shore and the orange hills rising on the horizon against a deep blue sky, it takes my breath away. Last week the smoke from a tire fire near campus also took my breath away, literally, but that’s another story.

IMG_0561I loved the people of Provence with their stylish clothes and chic haircuts that never look too overdone and their we-just enjoy-life attitudes. But I also love the people of Bamako with their multicolored robes and dresses and perfectly arranged head wraps and their live-and-let-live attitudes and how they can breathe oxygen heavy with dust and exhaust and not collapse. Even in the middle of Bamako traffic frenzy, in the midst of swerving cars, motos, donkeys, horses, cattle, push carts, etc. the Malians themselves maintain an air of calmness. Smile at them, they smile back. Wave, they return the wave. Try to speak to them in Bambara, they laugh (in a kind and appreciative way, mind you).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Provence we ate delicious local food, but also ate at some slammin’ Vietnamese and Italian meals. In Mali we eat mostly local dishes, but also enjoy overeating at the Indian and Lebanese restaurants. I appreciate the quiet orderliness of life in Provence (let’s have a four hour dinner at that street side café) and the exciting, but controlled chaos of life in Bamako (let’s try to avoid hitting that herd of longhorn cattle in the middle of the road on our way to the French café for a four hour dinner, but only if the police guy doesn’t pull us over for a bribe first).

So I guess it all boils down to the fact that for me, there is beauty in both order and chaos, in calmness and frenzy, in sophistication and simplicity, and in dodging French dog poo or Malian donkey poo.

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Provence, je t’aime….

Bamako, n'b'i fè.

Bamako, n’b’i fè.

Chapter 24: Sheep in the Penthouse/Mutton on the Plate

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On the way home from school last week I saw a ram—a really huge one with those giant twisty horns like you see on Satan in foreign horror films. That’s a fairly normal sight here in Bamako (sheep, not Satan) where these goat-looking sheep probably outnumber people.

But what made this sighting unique is that Mr. Sheep wasn’t in one of the normal locations,

photo: mali anta on flickr

photo: mali anta on flickr

e.g. lounging roadside a few inches from speeding traffic, crossing a busy road in a herd during rush hour, draped over the lap of a guy riding a moto down the street, or strapped to the top of a sitroma—the local vans used as a public bus.

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photo: bamada.net

Nope, this ovine guy was peeping out of a SECOND story window, in someone’s home. He had a rather relaxed look on his face, like he had just finished taking a long soak in the tub while sipping a glass of merlot. He certainly behaved as if he had always lived on the second floor, and spent his afternoons with bearded chin on the sash, watching the world go by.

Well, first of all I didn’t know that sheep did stairs. We could barely get our dogs to go up a few stairs and they didn’t even have hooves. Made me really wonder. Had he slipped into the house and tappity-tapped unnoticed right upstairs? Or did this homeowner suddenly think one day, “Why should living in the city keep me from having sheep? They can simply live in the guest bedroom upstairs!”

Whatever the case, it was only amusing for a moment, as I knew this ram’s penthouse

photo: mali anta on flickr

photo: mali anta on flickr

arrangement was short-term. Sadly, in just a few days he would be the featured entrée for a dinner on the Muslim holiday of Tabaski.

Also known as Eid al-Adha, this holiday celebrates Ibrahim/Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s orders to slit the throat of his young son (this warm and fuzzy tale is also recounted in the Bible and makes me understand why I always had nightmares after religion class). This bedroom sheep would join an estimated 100 million other animals (cows, camels, goats, and sheep) worldwide also meeting their maker as Tabaski dinner

photo: Linda Padolini

Banks offer Tabaski loans so you can buy a sheep too. photo: Linda Padolini

on October 15th. Because, according to many religions, nothing honors your supreme ruler more than slicing the jugular vein of a farm animal in his honor. I mean seriously, wouldn’t a deity be just as happy with, say, a big plate of carrots? We have lots of those here, and most folks don’t get emotionally attached to root vegetables.

At least this lucky sheep on the second floor lived the life of luxury beforehand. I’d like to think that at night he slept on a king-sized bed with a Tempur-Pedic mattress, snuggled in 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, listening to Adele and reading Star Magazine on his iPad (though I haven’t quite figured out how hooves would work with a swipe screen). I mean, you might as well go out on top, right?

willyI’ve always had a soft spot for animals, and I mean that in a “Free Willy” sort of way where I would totally free a captive orca from SeaWorld using a pick-up truck. I’ve protested with PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) outside of the circus, the greyhound racetrack, and a cosmetics industry meeting (my sign at this last one said, “L’Oreal: Blinding Bunnies for Beauty!). I really, really dislike any activity that harms animals, like hunting, bullfighting, or when the Roadrunner drops an anvil on Wile E. Coyote from the cliff above.

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I protested annually at our local greyhound torture track in West Palm Beach, FL (race track).

It’s the reason I was a vegetarian before coming to Mali. It started when I discovered that veal production mirrors the plot of a horror movie: yank a baby from its mom right after birth, confine it in a crate the size of a big beach towel so it can’t exercise and stays “tender,” feed it iron-poor gruel to keep it anemic so the flesh is pale, and kill it after 23 weeks so some fat human can gulp down its meat. Didn’t something like that happen in Saw IV?

Me with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. I was 2010 Humane Society teacher of the Year.

Me with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. I was 2010 Humane Society teacher of the Year.

Don’t get me wrong–I savor the taste of a crisp slice of bacon. And a hamburger on the grill dripping with pepper jack cheese is nirvana for me. But in the U.S. it was always easy for me to satisfy these cravings and not think about a slaughterhouse worker cracking the skull of Bessie the Cow or gutting Babe the pig. Why? Two words: mock meat.

It’s everywhere in America—fake burgers, hotdogs, crab cakes, chicken—all made from things without a face, like soy, wheat gluten, and pea protein (http://www.fakemeats.com/default.asp). In the U.S. I could still eat like a caveman without spearing the wooly mammoth and hacking off its meaty loins. For years I traced my open hand to draw cute turkeys, only to gobble down Tom Turkey at Thanksgiving dinner a few days later. Thank goodness Tofurkey allowed me to have a guilt-free holiday honoring the English prudes who were total bitches to the American Indians.

But now I’m in Mali, a developing country where the ethics of food have less to do with animal cruelty and more to do with how to feed the five million people that are starving...about a third of the population. Every day nearly 40 Malian children die from malnutrition–and I’m going to worry about whether or not my eggs come from free-range chickens? I’m pretty sure a hungry kid doesn’t debate the merits of Tofurkey vs. Tom Turkey.

I really wish the whole humane-treatment-of-animals issue here involved only food-related

matters. Unfortunately I don’t think life for any animal in Mali is so great. Take dogs, for example. There are a few dogs here, but I guarantee that they aren’t being pushed around in baby strollers or getting therapeutic canine massages or sleeping in $75/night doggy spas where their vacationing owners can watch them on a live web cam. Here dogs run loose in fields scrounging for scraps in ditches, or get picked up by one leg by the neighborhood kids.

Our next door neighbor here—let’s call him Michael Vick—has a German shepherd guard dog. One Sunday morning I heard it barking continuously so like any concerned neighbor I went to the roof deck to spy, er, I mean investigate by secretly peering down into his yard. There I saw whatever is the opposite of the Dog Whisperer—maybe the Dog Screamer–some guy lunging repeatedly at the animal with a stick that he also used to bang a metal pan just inches from the dog’s ears, all while the owner held the dog in place with a piece of rope around the neck. Ah, the special bond between man and dog.

I also grimace when I see a skinny horse pulling a wooden cart overloaded with rocks right

photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/superbebito/854382475/lightbox/

Chickens know what Bamako looks like upside-down. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos /superbebito/854382475/lightbox/

down a traffic-filled road. Or when a kid is beating the side of a sad-looking donkey to make it go faster. Or when a guy on a bike is laden with tiny, rusty, wire cages stuffed with live chickens, and he unloads them by tossing them to the ground. Or when longhorn cattle walk along the busiest road in town, crossing in front of speeding cars and motos that seem to miss them by mere centimeters.

Now I’m no Pollyanna. I know that animal cruelty happens in the good ol’ U.S. of A. too, and probably on a much larger scale (factory farm tour anyone?). It just doesn’t seem as horrific because I know there are animal rights organizations doing their best to stop awful things from happening. Nearly every week I receive an action alert from PeTA or the Humane Society asking me to email someone, and I do. Last week I emailed the University of Wisconsin/Madison, asking them to stop experimenting on cats (http://www.peta.org/features/uw-madison-cruelty.aspx). The email included this lovely description:

“According to records obtained by PETA, one cat was subjected to invasive surgeries on

photo: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

photo: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

her ears, skull, and brain. In the first operation, a stainless steel post was screwed to her skull so that her head could be immobilized during experiments. In the next surgery they cut into her head and skull and then applied a toxic substance to her inner ears in order to deafen her.”

Seriously though, what had to happen to that researcher as a child to make him okay with drilling into the skulls of live cats? Was he thinking, “I’m sure Fluffy won’t even notice this” as his Black & Decker cordless drill began to grind skull bone? Who knows, maybe he goes home and sits on his couch made of kitten fur and baby bald eagle feathers. I just hope his lamp made out of panda cub bones falls on him some day.

While farm animals aren’t exactly coddled here, at least Malians aren’t drilling kitten skulls or filming crush videos (in which women crush tiny animals with their stiletto heels—no lie—that’s really a thing). I can understand why a country with a 28% literacy rate wouldn’t grasp the notion of humane animal husbandry. What I can’t grasp is why a country like the U.S., with a 99% literacy rate, needs an animal rights organization to remind a university that it’s not cool to pour poison into the opened skulls of live cats.

school sheep

Mr. School Sheep #1 (the closest I came to naming he-who-would-be-dinner)

At school we had two “pet” sheep this year, munching grass in the distance while kids played on the swings. One had the biggest bluest eyes, and the other the loudest bleating I’ve ever heard. I didn’t let on to the kids that these were Tabaski sheep. Little did they know, one would be sacrificed right on the playground by a special Muslim man who is sanctioned to do this sort of thing (“Keep your classroom curtains closed between 8:30 and 9:00 AM!” our director reminded me). I was pleased to discover that this butcher guy had a hard time getting past the school guards as he brought an array of shiny, sharp knives in all shapes and sizes.

Our school sheep visit the cafeteria.

Our school sheep visit the cafeteria.

Supposedly the process is a quick thing done in a dignified manner and that’s what I’ll keep telling myself. Anyhow, this sheep would be served at the school’s Tabaski feast, and the second sheep would be raffled to a staff member (custodian, driver, gardener). This is a big deal as the sheep this year were frighteningly expensive, and continued to get more expensive as the big day drew closer. Since every family is expected to buy one, and the average worker’s monthly salary is $125, it becomes a hardship when you shell out $150 or $200 for a single sheep. So winning a sheep is a good thing. Even my cell phone service, Orange, sent a text saying that if I added minutes I would be in a lottery for a free sheep.

The following Monday I glanced out my window, and it was a little sad to see the Niger River without the school sheep prancing along in the foreground. I thought it was best not to mention anything to my students so as not to upset them. That morning I had them do a writing exercise about point of view. They took on the role of various people/objects/animals and wrote a paragraph on the same topic, a rainy day at school. I purposely did not include the sheep, as I didn’t want to call attention to their absence. I mean, what they don’t know can’t hurt them, right?

I did include the school tortoise though. Here’s what the student who was assigned the tortoise’s point of view read aloud:

Rainy days are the best at school. I have the whole field to myself because those loud kids

School tortoise; slow but enduring

School tortoise; slow but enduring

are inside. The only thing I have to worry about is sheep poop all over the ground. I have to crawl through it! I’m so glad it’s almost Tabaski and somebody will be eating those sheep and I won’t have to deal with that poop anymore.

And the class exploded with laughter and revelry while I pretended our school sheep had really escaped and were frolicking in a field of lavender in the south of France.

Chapter 23: Scary Monks, Food Poisoning Hallucinations, & Man-eating Alligators: My Inspirational Summer vacation

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ImageI’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of inspirational quotes, especially when they are superimposed over a misty picture of the sun rising over a field of lavender or a photo of a crew team gliding down a fog-shrouded river in England or Wales or wherever they do that. Or worse yet, a crew team gliding down a foggy river next to a field of lavender. Really, does it get any worse?

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My inspirational quote disdain can be traced back directly to a chain store that opened in a local mall a number of years ago. This company’s sole purpose is to litter the world with motivational accessories, because one can never have enough Tossable Inspiration Mini Pillows or No Fear Shark Squeezable Stress Relievers or We Appreciate You Watering Can Planters, all emblazoned with clichés about how “discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.” Worse yet, the store’s name is Successories! Kill me now.

Successories has a framed poster for the office showing a rural landscape with a St. Bernard looking regally off camera (most likely at a photo assistant holding a pork chop) and a quote across the bottom that says: Return trust with trust and unshakable loyalty will be your reward. In other words, treat your employees like dogs and they will fetch your slippers on command. They also have posters with no photos, just large words such as:Image

Because nothing is as motivational as a run-on sentence.

It’s not that I don’t understand the value of inspirational quotes. Once I was training teachers at a struggling school in Columbus, Ohio. There was one flippant, young teacher, who really needed to be working at a nail salon judging from her neon, bedazzled claws and her complete disinterest in any education-related discussion. After she tried to embarrass me at the wrap-up faculty meeting, I reminded her of the inspirational poster hanging in the teachers’ lounge. “That poster says Your Attitude Determines Your Altitude,” I said.  “And you are still sitting on the airport runway.” I’m sure she has never bought one single item from Successories.

However, there is one inspirational quote that does speak to me, despite the fact I’ve never seen it on a poster or a squeezable stress reliever. It’s what pops up on my iPhone screen when I turn it on:

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It’s attributed to St. Augustine, patron saint of brewers and the guy who viewed erections as sinful. Be that as it may, this is a quote I have lived by since I was a 16-year-old exchange student in Peru. That’s when I realized that the world actually had more to offer than weekends at the mall, shopping for accessories at Successories. I knew then that if my world was a book, I was going to read the whole damn thing, cover to cover.

Since those early days I’ve made a good deal of progress trying to devour that whole book, no more so than this past summer. In just 50 days or so Jamey and I were on 3 continents in 10 countries and five U.S. states, traveled on 11 flights, stayed in many accommodations (six hotels, two airbnb apartments, two guesthouses, one monastery, at the homes of each of our parents, and in the cottage of our best friend who lives in a naturist resort), and used seven different currencies–CFA, forint, euro, kuna, U.S. dollar, mark, dinar–most of which I never completely figured out. If the world is a book, we were definitely speed-reading through it this past summer.

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There were many highlights during this summer journey, though some might consider my highlights to be lowlights. It’s just that I tend to better recall and appreciate the moments that were odd, uncomfortable, or bizarre. For what it’s worth, here are the high/lowlights:

Trapped in a Tomb

In Montenegro we hiked up a steep, rocky path through the forest to a 400-year-old Serbian Orthodox monastery built in the side of a cliff in the Dinaric Alps.  ImageOnce we made it there, and after making sure our chest pains were related to exhaustion rather than heart failure, we discovered the thing to do is to wait in a line to enter a cave tomb and see someone’s bones. Now I’m just going to state this so it’s out there for all to see: Please make sure that my remains—bones, skin, hair, etc.—are not viewed by the general public under any circumstances. I don’t even want people seeing my old clothes.

Anyway, I’m not sure to whom the bones belonged, but I got in line. I had to stoop down to walk through the four-foot-high door/hole into this tomb room, which was about the size of a bathroom at a Holiday Inn. It was dark and filled with an overpowering incensy smell. When my eyes adjusted, the first image I caught sight of was a giant and very serious Serbian Orthodox monk dude with a giant black beard, giant black robe, and saucer eyes that stared me down. He was letting a few people in at a time, waving us toward an open gilded coffin where presumably the bones were displayed. I wondered if they were assembled into a skeleton like you see at Halloween and if it would be dressed up. But alas I couldn’t see anything bone-like at all—just flowers and crosses and some crumpled, shiny cloth. Seriously, I stood in line and I don’t even get to see a femur?ImageI guess I gawked so long trying to see those bones that Jamey and our friends had left the tomb room. When I attempted to leave, the large monk held up his hand (which was the size of a Monopoly game board) and instead allowed another gaggle of tourists to enter. My usual claustrophobia had not set in before as I was distracted about the bone-viewing. But now, wedged into a dark, closet-sized cave with what seemed like 100 other tourists, a coffin, and a scary monk, I was beginning to panic. Was he enjoying keeping me prisoner? Maybe I would drop dead and they would put my bones in that coffin too, or at least make some sort of light fixture out of them as this room was just too dark. Finally when there was a lull in the line of tourists entering, I made a mad dash for the door/cave hole and was very glad I didn’t feel a massive game board sized hand grab me by the neck. Thankfully a strong, local beer soon put me at ease.

iPhones and Thermal Baths

In Budapest, Hungary we couldn’t wait to get to the Szechenyi Bath and Spa, a 100-year-old facility with more pools, thermal baths, saunas, steam rooms, and large men in Speedos than one could count. We bounced from pool to pool, testing the waters (literally) that were either really hot, really cold, medicinal, whirlpooly, still, and a variety of other qualities. Some pools were inside where we soaked under marble domed ceilings in a relaxed, calm atmosphere.  At one point we endured the hottest eucalyptus-smelling sauna ever, then jumped into an ice-cold pool afterwards where I believe my central nervous system exploded.

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Pool #4, minty-flavored

After showering and changing in the locker room, we left satisfied, relaxed, and with glowing skin. We decided to mill around the well-landscaped park surrounding the baths. It was there, about a half hour later, that Jamey realized he had left his iPhone in the locker at the baths. We bounded back there and asked the locker room attendant if he would kindly retrieve the phone from Locker 21. But it was not to be….the locker was already locked, apparently being used by someone else who was soaking in a pool somewhere. The place closed in three hours, so the attendant suggested we return then to see if someone turned it in. Right. Maybe I’m a little jaded having lived in South Florida where someone stole the renewal stickers off of my car license plate. I didn’t have high hopes at this point.

We sat on a curb just outside of the spa doors, dejected but suspiciously eyeing every person who left the place. Maybe someone would be brandishing the phone saying in some foreign language, “Thank you dumb Americans for this gift of technology!” Or “Let’s call everyone we know in Asia or North America!” ImageWe decided to write a note to stick on the locker, using some honest, heartfelt language—something like, “We are awaiting a heart-lung transplant and would appreciate getting our phone back so we can receive the doctor’s call.” But when Jamey went in to write the note, the locker room attendant handed him the iPhone, which someone had just turned in! I celebrated by having a strong, local beer (hmmm, I’m sensing a pattern here).

Bike Riding and Food Poisoning Along the Danube

The last thing we usually want to do on vacation is anything that seems like work, such as hiking, biking, and maybe even walking. But in Belgrade, Serbia a few of our fellow travelers decided to rent

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On our way to the Botulism Cafe.

bikes and we joined the pack. We rode along a well made bike path that followed the Danube River. We rode about five miles to a village known for its delicious seafood restaurants, and quickly picked a pleasant-looking outdoor establishment with tables along the river. I was the only one who ordered catfish which was probably a good thing as it didn’t quite look cooked all the way through—something I discovered after eating half of the meal.

That evening, as we sat with our fellow travelers at a local restaurant in Belgrade, I Imagenoticed that I had absolutely no appetite. When the waiter plopped a massive platter of glossy, grilled meats on the table, it made me queasy and I began to sweat a bit. Just as I thought it would be a good time to visit the bathroom a group of energetic Serbian musicians surrounded our table and serenaded us with song…after song, after song. Before the last chord was strummed I sprang from my seat straight into the bathroom, dizzy, cold, and sick to my stomach.

Back at the hotel I began my all night bathroom vigil and it was bad, really bad. My body managed to get rid of everything inside it except major organs (and at one point I thought I had lost one of those), all while entertaining me with cramping pains, dry heaves, hallucinations, and other assorted sickness whatnot. I didn’t think the situation could get much worse unless, say I was forced to leave the hotel at five the next morning for a 9.5 hour public bus ride to Sarajevo on twisting and turning roads. Which is exactly what we did.

But by 5:00 a.m. my body had nothing left inside, including hope, so I collapsed into a bus seat with the intention of sleeping for the next nine hours. However, the trashy family with two toddlers that boarded last would see to it that my trip was as painfully uncomfortable as possible. If there was such a thing as Serbian trailer park trash, these were the leaders of that clan…loud talking, constant drunken-style laughing, kids screaming/yelling/banging toys on the seat, and I’m sure profanity-laced language (though I don’t speak Serbo-Croatian I swear it sounded like they were cursing). I pushed earplugs in so far I think I touched my brain stem. Then I popped a Tylenol PM and went to a happy place that was nowhere near a public bus in Serbia.

A Haunting in Sarajevo (or Food Poisoning Along the Danube Part II)

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Our Sarajevo guesthouse. Or as I like to call it, Hallucination Hotel.

When we arrived at our guesthouse in Sarajevo, the rest of our group prepared to head out on a guided walk as I collapsed onto the bed, still fully clothed and with shoes on. I slept for the next 16 hours. I think.

At one point I heard a knock at the door and dragged myself out of bed to answer. It was a young girl with long blonde hair who just stared at me. I asked her what she wanted, and she giggled and ran off. As with every horror movie, the next day I discovered

Imagethere were no children in the guesthouse at all so I was either hallucinating or she was a Bosnian ghoul. And no, this time I didn’t have a local beer to calm my nerves. Food poisoning, paranormal activity, and beer do not mix.

No Paparazzi!

From Dubrovnik, Croatia we took a short ferry ride to the small island of Lokrum, home to the ruins of a Benedictine abbey and monastery built in 1023. The monks supposedly put a curse on the island when they were forced to leave 200 years ago, but the worst thing we encountered were extremely overpriced sandwiches at the snack bar and I’m not sure the monks were at fault.

But for us, the most interesting feature of the island was located on the far rocky end, an area designated as “clothing optional.” Apparently nude beaches are quite popular in Croatia and we wanted to say that we at least stepped a nude foot on one. This “beach” wasn’t a beach at all though, but a small rocky cliff where folks found completely private sunbathing areas hidden between giant slabs of stone. Once we found our spot we realized we were completely hidden, visible to only the sparkling Adriatic Sea that lapped at the shore below us. So, we gathered our courage and soon were sunbathing like the natives. We’ll give it 30 minutes, we reasoned.

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Minutes later, though, we heard voices in the distance, and they didn’t seem to be coming from land. But who could be talking? The seagulls? And then outof nowhere appeared a gaggle of bright orange kayaks. It took us a minute to realize that when the guide was hilariously pointing out the au naturel sunbathers on the rocks, and the other kayakers were giggling and snapping pictures, WE were part of that conversation! We wrapped ourselves in towels like desert sheiks while they passed.

We had a good laugh after that and decided our Croatian nude beach experience was done. As we were standing  and changing back into clothes I noticed movement in the sea behind us. Sure enough, a large tour boat was idling offshore to allow the 50 passengers (men, women, and children) to ogle. After a number of cold local beers later that afternoon, I nearly forgot that our likenesses could be appearing on humorously-themed Flickr accounts around the globe.

Red Eyes at Night

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In north Florida, sort of in the middle of nowhere, we agreed to join Jamey’s adventurous Aunt Sue on a moonlight kayak trip down a stretch of the Ocklawaha River (despite the unpleasant kayak experience in Croatia). Aunt Sue had done this trip before, and marveled at how the light of the full moon made night kayaking so easy. This was an historic river, used in the 1800s and early 1900s by narrow steamboats to transport passengers (some of them famous) to Silver Springs. If Thomas Edison, Ulysses S. Grant, and Mary Todd Lincoln had taken a trip on this river, so could we. Never mind that we had never paddled in a kayak. How hard could it be?

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I wanted one last photograph of my feet in case an alligator ate them.

Well it was kind of hard.  Jamey and I launched first so we could get a feel for the kayak and because there was still a little daylight. The first thing I noticed was that it was wobbly, as in if you shifted your weight just a teensy bit because your butt cheek was numb, it seemed as if you were going to tip right over into a river where alligators lived. So I can’t exactly say this was a relaxing situation for me. I sat unnaturally statue-like for the remainder of the trip.

There were 20 kayaks or so when we began our trip down the narrow channel. In the remaining light the scene was Florida lovely… cabbage palms and giant live oaks crowded along the shores, some of them leaning into the river so that you could touch the leaves. Except we were told not to touch the leaves as they were thick with some sort of tiny stinging insect that would invade your body and hair. Once we got deeper into the forest we were all alone except for loud insect and amphibian noises—not a sign of humanity anywhere.

Then it got dark and I mean the kind of dark you experience when you are blindfolded and dipped into a vat of black ink in an underground mine and then covered by tar and wrapped in thick black plastic. There was no telling the difference between the black water, black land, black forest, and black sky. Apparently we had forgotten to invite the full moon.

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I broke my statue-like posture once to snap this picture as I kayaked. The green light is either a glow stick on someon’es canoe, an evil alligator, or the ghost girl from Sarajevo.

The only things really visible were the faint glow sticks on our kayaks–and the glaring lights that two of the kayakers had mounted on poles on the back of their kayaks. I assume they thought this would make them easy to spot if they got lost, but I’m not sure they understood that they were visible from the International Space Station. I mean these like the headlights of a 747, blinding if you were within 100 feet of their kayaks. So whenever those two came near, everyone else scattered. Of course this meant that you were still completely blinded from their beacons, but now paddling into the inky darkness of alligator infested waters and bug infested trees.

In my statue-like state I still managed to make my way all the way to the front of the pack where it was dark and where the leader was explaining historic tidbits to a couple of other kayakers. He would also stop occasionally to shine a flashlight along the shore, illuminating dozens of pairs of eyes which I swear were Satan red in color. Then he’d just say, “Gator. Gator. Gator….” and so on until he felt he had counted them all.

At this point I would have totally sold my soul to the devil in exchange for a safe return to land. When the leader finally said, “Almost there” I nearly relaxed my statue-like posture but not really because the guide said this last stretch of river was known as Dead Creek. When we got to our ending point I think I paddled right up the dirt bank and across the grass, right onto the back of the transport truck. Later, an icy cold gin and tonic calmed my nerves after this memorable evening, my first and last kayak trip.

So yeah, crazy stuff happened this summer. But without being trapped in a cave oreating spoiled fish or being the butt (!) of a tour guide’s joke or tempting some alligators I’d have nothing to talk about but the pretty scenery. And I get enough of that on the Successories posters.

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