Chapter 31: Stuffed Raccoons, Greenlandic Hip Hop, and Selfie Stick Harpoons: My Search for Solitude

Photo credit: Ken Kashian,

Photo credit: Ken Kashian,

One of the things I loved most as a kid was piling into the car with my siblings and parents and taking a trip to see the grandparents. I had two sets of grandparents and both lived in tiny Illinois towns that required what seemed like a day’s drive through the midwestern countryside. Of course the drives were really about 30 minutes or so, but when you are ten and arguing with your sisters about their legs invading your seat space (“MOM! Jill’s leg is crossing the border into my seat area!”), it seemed so much longer. I’m sure my parents agreed.

We may have been close to home, but it seemed like a whole different world—fields of towering corn that seemed to go on forever, the smell of pig manure that would fill the car (and that we would blame on our sister Amy), and all those beautiful cows that I thought were the farmers’ pets. I’d look at those farmhouses perched alone in the center of nowhere and wonder if it was super relaxing or super scary not to have a neighbor within a mile or two. From my extensive knowledge gleaned from comic books and horror films, I figured they were prime targets for an alien abduction or an attack by an escaped one-armed patient from an insane asylum. I mean, during the day these wide-open landscapes looked like the subject of a Grandma Moses painting, but at night they were the perfect setting for The Walking Dead (“Wilbur, there’s a growling young man on the porch without one side of his face. Should I invite him in for a piece of pie?”).


You can get drunk on the north or the south side of the street.

You can get drunk on the north or the south side of the street in Mendon.

It was a different world when we arrived in these far away towns, though. Mendon, Illinois, home of Grandma and Grandpa Fessler, had a tiny downtown, really nothing more than a line of squat commercial buildings along the highway that sliced through town. There was Strickler’s grocery store where we bought many a can of Pringles and jars of Tang, and the Variety Store packed full of, well, a variety of things made of plastic that gave the store it’s memorable and brain-cell-killing scent. And best of all, in a town of less than 900 people, there was not one, but two taverns packed with people, right across the street from each other. I like a town that knows its priorities.

Grandma and Grandpa lived in a minty green ranch style home about five houses from where the town ended and the blacktop road turned to gravel. There was an expansive field across the street from them with a grey barn and silo in the distance, and another big field behind them with a weathered red barn. Even though we could drive from their house to our house in the time it took to watch an episode of the Brady Bunch, it still felt like I was smack in the middle of nowhere.

Grandma and Grandpa McClelland lived in the even tinier town of Meyer, Illinois (if you look at the shape of Illinois as the profile of a fat guy, Meyer is the bellybutton on the protruding stomach). Sitting on the east bank of the Mississippi River, it’s 100 or so residents were separated from the muddy waters by a levee 20 feet tall (only 10 people live there now due to devastating floods in 1993 and 2008). I loved staying in Meyer on my summer vacation because it seemed even more remote than Mendon–I could count on my hand how many cars drove down by in a day.Slide1 (1)

But for a kid, this isolated town at the end of a blacktopped road had it all. There was no

downtown (geez, there was hardly even a town) but there was…wait for it…a tavern! And it had a stuffed raccoon outside the door that made a noise when the bartender inside pushed a button.

I’d walk atop the levee looking for arrowheads, take the ferry across the river, or pick raspberries in Grandma’s garden. I remember once looking out Grandma’s bedroom window as a storm approached, seeing the unending

yellow wheat field across the road contrasted against an ominous slate blue sky. Why couldn’t all landscapes be the same color as the Hermes Spring/Summer 2015 men’s collection?

Dark Stormy Skies Over Golden Fields HD Desktop Background

Looking out from Grandma’s window. Source:


Or looking at the runway. Source:

Looking back on my childhood, I really wonder if my brain was warped from eating too many Pop-tarts, because it seems weird that I liked nothing better than being far away from home in secluded, isolated places (I’m pretty sure that is one of those things you see on the list of characteristics of a serial killer). But I loved visiting places that seemed undiscovered, off-the-beaten-path spots where adventure and surprise awaited around every corner, e.g. stuffed raccoons, dueling taverns, etc.

Greasy hair and sore feet on the ancient Incan trail to Machu Picchu.

Greasy hair and sore feet on the ancient Incan trail to Machu Picchu.

I continued to explore this odd desire as I got older. In high school, while most kids were loitering at the mall, my friends and I frequented abandoned farmhouses in the countryside surrounding my town. As a high school exchange student living in Peru, I got to hike three days with a small group along a remote, ancient, Incan trail to the ruins of Machu Picchu. I remember this trip for several reasons: 1. In three days of hiking we saw only two other humans; 2. It was the first and last time I went three days without washing my hair; 3. I’m not a fan of remote places that require long hikes.

Years later I finally stepped foot on a place that had been a dream destination, a spot that Chile & Easter Island July 2008 - 486is known as one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. It took us eight hours to fly from Miami to Santiago, Chile, then another fives hours flying straight west to Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island. I had never felt so isolated, just our little foursome and 900 of those stone head statues (moais) to explore. Even though we felt like we were in The Land That Time Forgot, there was still an Internet café, a luxury eco-resort, a Hertz car rental, and a post office that would stamp a moai in your passport for two bucks.

There have been other places along the way that felt isolated and undiscovered for a minute or two—until the tour buses pulled in or until we drove twenty minutes away and the McDonalds and KFC started popping up along the roadside. The rock-hewn churches inside of caves in Bulgaria were desolate, but only because we were there after-hours, risking life and limb along darkened, muddy trails (I perhaps forgot the lesson I learned in Peru about hiking).

Stop taking my picture crazy American boy.

Wait a minute, I think you can see a sliver of temple there on the right.

There was exactly one temple around Angkor Wat in Cambodia (the largest religious monument in the world) that seemed secluded. It was the only temple where, for whatever reason, we were the only two there, probably since the 1100s when Khmers worshipped here. Later that afternoon we visited another temple that our guide assured us was the most remote, requiring a bumpy 50-minute ride in an open-aired tuk-tuk with dragonflies slamming into our faces. Upon arrival we saw that a quarter of the population of Tokyo had decided to visit this “remote” locale as well. All of my photos are 95% Japanese faces/sun umbrellas and 5% temple.

Then there was Greenland. This past summer, feeling a little melancholy leaving Mali after three years, we decided to take a vacation within our U.S. vacation. So, on a whim we chose Greenland, the world’s largest island. And although it was my Fantasy Island destination from childhood, I’d venture to say that most folks wouldn’t go there even if they won a free ticket. “You know, Jeff, it’s not really green,” I would hear. Because naturally I was thinking that Greenland looked exactly like Maui. I knew it was a country larger than Mexico, but with a population smaller than Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and that appealed to me. Although I was desperately hoping it would be nothing like Arkansas (sorry, Pine Bluffians).


When you’ve seen the world, there’s always Greenland.

JF & JY Graceland

We were there too: Graceland, former home and final resting place of Elvis (or is it……?)

An old saying goes, “When you’ve seen the world, there’s always Greenland.” As a kid I’d stare at the world map taped to my bedroom wall, and marvel at how far removed that big old white island was from the rest of the world. Even though Easter Island was remote, lots of people still went there. Greenland on the other hand gets about 12 tourists a year. Actually, about 35,000 fly in every year for a visit, but when Graceland–the former home and current resting place (maybe??) of Elvis–gets 600,000 visitors a year, and Legoland California gets 60 million visitors a year, and the Creation “Museum” in Kentucky–which purports that the earth is just 6,000 years young and that humans and dinosaurs chilled out together—gets 250,000 numbskulls to visit each year, 35,000 Greenland visitors seems like a drop in the bucket.

Everything about this country made me want to see it. An ice sheet covers over 80% of

Gingers rock: Erik the Red founded the 1st Norse settlement in Greenland in 982. Image Source:

Gingers rock: Erik the Red founded the 1st Norse settlement in Greenland in 982. Image Source:

the land, and if it all melted the world’s oceans would rise 23 feet (the ice sheet really is melting much faster than usual due to climate change, so start building your ocean front home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas now!). Over the last 4500 years it was settled by Vikings and Inuits and Danish people. Football (aka soccer in the U.S.) is the national sport but Greenland is not a member of FIFA because of its current inability to grow grass for regulation grass pitches. Global warming should change that in the next couple of years. nuuk posseThere is a Greenlandic hip hop group named Nuuk Posse whose members are Inuit and who rap in Danish, English, and Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language. If you list the 20 largest Greenlandic cities by population, the top spot is the capital Nuuk with 16,400 people, and in the 20th spot is Kangaamiut with a whopping 353 people. You have to travel between towns by helicopter or boat because there are zero roads connecting them.

We flew Air Greenland from Iceland into Kulusuk, Greenland, population 267. The airport is a former U.S. military airstrip built in the 1950s. Inside it’s adorned with the skins of polar bears, the animal that’s the symbol of the country and adorns Greenland’s national coat of arms (sort of like if Americans decorated LA International with bald eagle feathers). We stayed at Hotel Kulusuk, the one and only hotel option, which on the outside looked sort of like a warehouse, but was cozy on the inside with stunning panoramas from every window of a fjord and snow-capped mountains.

The hide of their national animal decorating the terminal.

The hide of their national animal decorating the terminal.

Our room with a view.

Our room with a view.

The village, a 30-minute hike down a muddy road surrounded by snow banks, looked like a movie set…brightly colored wooden houses that looked exactly how a kindergarten draws a house with a peaked top and one window and door. Aside from a few local Inuit fisherman working on a boat, we were the only souls around. It was here where we opted to go for a ride in a tiny open-air motorboat into the iceberg filled fjord. The hotel brochure described this trip as something like a “journey into the solitude,” where our only neighbors would be stunningly gorgeous icebergs crisscrossed by turquoise and jade stripes where melt water from the glaciers has run into crevasses in the many thousand year-old ice. After living in a noisy and crowded West African country, and getting ready to move to an even more noisy and crowded Asian country, the thought of being surrounded by pure air and water and enveloped in silence for a few hours sounded like a dream.


A rare moment when our boat mates weren’t using a camera.

Then came the group of six Japanese tourists and a young, amorous Spanish couple who would make sure that the solitude part never happened. We all crowded into the teeny orange boat, donned weird, cube-shaped life vests, and put our lives into the hands of the teenage Inuit driver. Although young, he was a master at maneuvering through the iceberg-clogged bay, regularly reaching his leg outside the boat to push the ice chunks away from the boat.

As we finally got into more open water, the other passengers stood for photos—selfies, group photos, posed shots, informal shots, romantic poses, selfie stick pictures, pouty lip shots, photos with sunglasses, photos without, kissing pictures, laughing shots, serious shots, pretending-to-hold-the-iceberg-in-the-distance pics. And all of the photos were

Eating fresh iceberg to numb the pain of rude tourists. Mmmm, tastes like Evian!

Eating fresh iceberg to numb the pain of rude tourists. Mmmm, tastes like Evian!

accompanied by loud Japanese and Spanish chatter that reverberated off the icebergs and I’m sure ricocheted across the entire Greenlandic ice sheet, waking polar bears and musk oxen across the country. Add to this the lovefest happening between the two Spanish people a mere two feet from where we sat. Nothing like groping and the sounds of wet, sloppy kisses to accompany our arctic viewing. Seriously, if we had passed close to a flat iceberg, the future little Maria would have had a fantastic story about where mama and papa conceived her.IMG_5541

I was sitting within reaching distance of the boat controls. Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind to grab the wheel and violently jerk the boat so that these passengers spilled out into the icy waters and became Japanese and Spanish icebergs. Or that I didn’t imagine how IMG_5509a selfie stick could also be used as a people harpoon. But I avoided a lengthy prison sentence in a Greenlandic prison by just staring out at the snowy mountains and breathing deeply to fill my lungs with the pristine air. Occasionally I would scrape my gloved hand across an iceberg when we were close enough, and pop the ice bits into my mouth (where they tasted just like Evian). This was enough to almost make me stop wishing I were somewhere more remote even though I was in one of the most remote places on earth.

IMG_5739Yes, Jamey and I snapped some photos too (that’s where these came from), but 85% of our time was spent just trying to be present in this nearly untouched environment. Okay, maybe I spent an additional 5% of the time wishing the rest of the passengers would fall overboard, but aside from that I can still clearly see, smell, feel, hear, and taste this experience. I’m betting that for the others, their only memories are in a bunch of stupid digital photos that none of their friends or families really wants to see (“Oh, and here’s me and Mr. Miyagi laughing at the funny-shaped iceberg that looks like Godzilla, and here’s me and Hiroki laughing at another funny-shaped iceberg that looks like Hello Kitty, and…”).


Despite the setbacks I’ll continue my quest to find remote corners of the earth to explore, even if it is a hole-in-the-wall tavern in the middle of nowhere. Just wait until I leave before you take a damned selfie with that stuffed raccoon.

Chapter 30: You’re Lookin’ Swell Mali: Saying Goodbye to Our Bamako Adventure


Clarence (right) with the goo-goo-googly eyes.

As a kid I was obsessed with Africa, mostly fueled by what I saw on TV. There was the TV series Daktari starring Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, who made me feel both terrified and super sad at the same time (“Watch out! He’ll tear your head off with those powerful jaws…ohhhh, poor thing…what lioness will hook up with that walleyed creature?”).

There was the based-on-a-true-story movie Born Free, where we all boo-hooed when captive animal Elsa the lion is finally set free (in slow motion, of course) into theborn free Kenyan wilds as that sappy, Oscar-winning Born Free song plays: Born free, and life is worth living, But only worth living, ’cause you’re born freeeeeeee. This is not to be confused with Kid Rock’s Born Free song in which he defiantly sings, “You can knock me down and watch me bleed, But you can’t keep no chains on me, I was born free! While technically those lyrics could apply to a freed African lion, poor grammar ruins the mood.

I can’t forget the classic film The African Queen where Katharine Hepburn manages to look glamorous in the Tanzanian jungles amidst the tsetse flies, high humidity, and a lack of toiletries. Glamour and jungle adventure all in one? Sign me up!

african queen

Ms. Hepburn…why don’t you sweat?

And then there was my favorite Abbott and Costello movie “Africa Screams,” where a male gorilla has a major crush on Bud Abbott and eventually saves him from being boiled up for dinner by some hungry cannibals. I used to think the whole cannibalism thing in this movie was horribly stereotypical until I read that in the 1890s the town of Ngandu in the Congo paved its streets with the leftovers from supper, in this case 2,000 polished human skulls. Oh well, they always say two (thousand) heads are better than one.

africa screams

Despite the fact that I grew up in the Midwest, literally next to a cornfield, I fantasized that I lived in the wilds of Africa. The forest in the nearby park became the jungles of the Congo, and I would hack my way along the deep jungle trails with my trusty machete (well, it was part of a high rise handlebar that broke off of my Schwinn Stringray bike, you know, the one with the banana seat?). Now, I’m pretty sure that the jungles of the Congo didn’t have a Dairy Queen across the street like my jungle did, but a boy’s gotta have his Mister Misty and Dilly Bar after all of that jungle trekking.

jungle cruise

A hungry, hungry hippo in lifelike plastic.

I even wrote a story in junior high about two boys who find an old map in their algebra book and stow away to Africa in search of treasure. Clearly I was doing some daydreaming during math class. I also daydreamed about the time I rode the Jungle Cruise at DisneyWorld, my nirvana. A ten-minute dose of pygmies, pythons, and gorillas, all while gliding along a refreshingly clean “river” with our experienced African guide (actually, an 18-year old high school dude named Jason from Fort Wayne, Indiana wearing a pith helmet). What more could an Africa-obsessed kid crave?


Hope there is some Pepto-Bismol in that bag….

So imagine my delight when I first actually stepped foot on the African continent, on a big detour during a college-era backpacking trip through Europe. Four of us had just arrived in Athens, saw a poster advertising cheap flights to Cairo, and within two hours were at the airport—despite the fact we didn’t have a visa for Egypt. After a weird chat with authorities at the Cairo airport in which we signed some papers that were all written in Arabic that might/might not have promised them my firstborn or my corneas, we were allowed in.

We enjoyed a weeklong adventure exploring the pyramids, riding camels in the desert, and learning that inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurant food, while economically sensible, can cause explosive diarrhea two days later. But I was in Africa. AFRICA! It was as exotic and every bit as exciting as the Jungle Cruise, even though the Nile river water seemed a bit cloudier than the Disney “river.” But despite our watery stools, it was one of the best experiences of my life.


Just like the movie Casablanca, except actually filmed in Casablanca.

Some years later I got to experience Africa yet again. This time Jamey and I traveled to Morocco for a few weeks on a tour around the country, wandering the souks of Marrakesh, having tea with a Berber family in the Atlas Mountains, and seeing the hotel where the Marx Brothers filmed A Night in Casablanca. It was also here that we learned that Humphrey Bogart’s classic film Casablanca was not filmed in Casablanca, but rather in the exotic locales of Burbank and Van Nuys, California. Here’s lookin’ at you, California kid.

But it wasn’t until three and a half years ago that the idea of living in Africa presented itself to us. By that point we had abandoned hopes of continuing our teaching career in America, which had become about as pleasant as swallowing a mouthful of sulfuric acid-coated glass shards. Instead we were looking for international teaching jobs that would take us far, far away from the test-obsessed mess in the U.S. While there were international teaching jobs available in many countries, two openings fitting our exact skills popped up at a school in Bamako, Mali.

Mali! We pictured ourselves in pith helmets and khaki jackets, just like Jason the Jungle Cruise guide. We saw ourselves living in this exotic place of golden sands that was once home to a grand kingdom twice the size of France–so wealthy it made European royalty look like trailer park trash. We emailed the school and interviewed by Skype a few times, and after a couple of months received the news that we were hired. Surprisingly, safari fashions were not part of the conversation, but we were thrilled just the same to know we would soon be living and working in the exotic lands of West Africa.

Now granted there were a few bumps in the road in our journey. And by bumps I mean those speed bumps at the rental car places that are covered with sharp iron spikes. Because just a month after signing our contract Mali experienced a coup d’état, then a counter coup. The school closed, and we were offered the chance to cancel our contracts. But then it reopened and we went to Mali anyway because really, we figured, how much worse could it get?


Not a good day for a bike ride.

Well, maybe a little worse. Within a couple of months Islamist rebels took over the northern half of the country, followed by a massive intervention by the French Army (who, by the way, wear really, really short camouflaged shorts). In the two years that followed there was a terrorist attack at a nightclub in Bamako, as well as an outbreak of Ebola. But other than that, things were dandy.

Aside from the troubles and a fluctuating student population that waxed and waned

Who wears short shorts, we wear short shorts, if you dare wear short shorts, Nair for short shorts....

Who wears short shorts, we wear short shorts, if you dare wear short shorts, Nair for short shorts….

depending on which countries evacuated their people, and the security advisories from the American Embassy cautioning us to avoid lots of places, we loved just about every minute of our time in Bamako. I realize that probably makes a few folks shake their heads, along the same lines as “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” But believe me when I say that Mali is so much more than rare viral outbreaks and military skirmishes in the desert by short shorts-wearing men. These will not be my takeaways from three years in Mali (okay, maybe I’ll remember those crazy short shorts).

So what will I take away from our three years living and working in Mali? What will I fondly remember? Here’s what:

The Colors

Nothing is dull-colored in Mali. Everything from the clothes to the carrots dances with vivid color. Even the dirt is fabulous, a sort of earthy orange hue that would look great on the walls of a Parisian apartment or on a gown going down the catwalk. Actually most of our light-colored clothes and linens turned this shade of orange, so we really will remember this tone for years to come.



The People

We had to arrive at school early because it took at least ten or 15 minutes to get through the greetings and joking with the school guards at the gate. Sure, there were teachers who blew right past these guys with a clipped “bonjour,” but they missed out on one of my favorite parts of the day. This is when we learned to speak rudimentary Bambara, including the basic greeting that can take about five minutes (How are you? How did you sleep? How is your family? How is the village chief? And so on).


This is the time where we began to comprehend the Malian sense of humor, in which they make fun of you but you don’t really feel insulted because they are so damn nice and have the most genuine smiles ever (“Your belly looks big. Did you eat everything in the house?” or “You look tired. Too much whiskey last night?”). We bonded with these guys, and plenty of the other local staff who we took the time to get to know, and saying goodbye to them was heart-wrenching.

We once visited a remote village with a colleague and his Malian friend who originally came from this village. Even though the villagers didn’t know us and we weren’t exactly dressed well (sorry Katharine Hepburn) we were treated like VIPs, always offered the good seat in the shade along with a welcome speech about how they felt so privileged to have us there. We even met the chief who welcomed us and told us we could return any time. Throngs of kids followed us as we walked back to our car. All I could think of was, “So this is what it’s like to be a member of One Direction!”



The Expats

It takes a certain kind of person to knowingly choose to live in a landlocked, developing, sub-Saharan country where kids still poop in the road and shirts are sold from tree limbs on the roadside, where embassy advisories pop up on our phones warning us to steer clear of public places. These are people with a sense of adventure, a bit of grit, an intense interest in culture, a humanitarian spirit, lots of passport stamps, and definitely a touch of insanity. And I loved meeting every one of them.

We met a UN filmmaker who shot a documentary about artists in Afghanistan. A former colleague organizes music festivals in remote areas of Mali in order to promote peace among different tribes. Another friend worked with transgendered prostitutes in various countries around the world. We met male and female Marines who, still in their 20s, have already worked in several countries most people couldn’t point out on a map. We even socialized with the US Ambassador and the British Deputy Chief of Mission.


The Weather


Our road turns into the Jungle Cruise.

There really should be a TV show about the weather in Mali (hey, there are shows called “Treetop Cat Rescues” and “Wives With Knives,” so a meteorological-based Mali program isn’t too farfetched). The wet season involves torrential downpours that dump so much rain in an hour or two that if there actually were storm drains they couldn’t handle it. So the roads turn into rivers–I actually saw fish swimming down on our “street” one afternoon. The hot season is so blistering hot and dry that it sucks the moisture from your eyes and makes blinking a chore. On the bright side (pun intended), it’s nearly always sunny so you are always cheerful as you slowly melt into the pavement. Surprisingly I must have adapted to the climate because a few weeks I actually found myself saying, “No, it’s not that hot. it’s only 100.” I guess to me, 100 degrees is the new 80 degrees.


The Arts

We took an African dance class our first year in Bamako, practicing on a patio outside our school, overlooking the Niger River, with live drummers who pounded away like there was no tomorrow. In our own minds we moved like the newest members of the Alvin Ailey maskAmerican Dance Theater; in reality we looked like two guys with some sort of nerve damage. But it didn’t matter because we were having fun and feeling a part of the culture—a culture that is steeped in the arts. We saw just about every top Malian musician in concert (Habib Koite played at one of our school’s graduation ceremonies), watched puppet shows, learned how to decorate mud cloth, and purchased enough masks and pottery and statues to open our own museum.


House Calls

Does the cat need shots? Car need a tune up? Feel like buying some Malian crafts? If so, keep your lazy butt on the couch because in Bamako everyone makes house calls, from the vet, to the mechanic, to the crafts guy. I did go to a dental office to get a root canal because I didn’t want blood and saliva to get on the couch.


The Simplicity

Bamako has a couple of million people, but is still referred to as a “big village.” I would add a “big DUSTY village.” There is about one high-rise building, and not many stoplights or cowsidewalks or paved roads. On the other hand there are plenty of farm animals gallivanting around the city, and you can buy most of what you need at the roadside. It’s a busy, crowded sort of place, but uncomplicated and not stressful.

Sure there are a gazillion vehicles/animals/people in the road, but you seldom move faster than 25 MPH. So it never feels like a crazy death-defying ride down I-95 like I was used to, with obnoxious drivers two inches from my bumper, honking at me to go faster when I was already ten miles over the speed limit. If you’re trying to pull onto a busy road in Bamako, people actually stop their cars and flash their lights to let you in.

Nothing seemed to rattle my Malian friends. If I was fried at the end of the day from trying to accomplish too much and not getting everything done, they would say: “Dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin, kɔnɔnin bɛ a ɲaa da.” (Little by little, a bird builds its nest). When the war in the north was raging and we were preparing “to go” bags in case of evacuation, they just said things like, “That’s life” and “It will all work out.” When our plane was delayed for hours and I paced the airport trying to find out what was going on, the Malian passengers stretched out across three seats and slept. I rarely heard a Malian complain, except for my janitor at school who felt the school cat didn’t deserve the canned food and imported Whisker Lickin treats I gave her because “she doesn’t really do any work.”


The Adventure

Listen, I won’t lie: Jamey and I like fancy places too. Provence in the south of France is divine…we enjoyed buying lilies at the outdoor flower market and eating at swanky sidewalk cafes and buying lavender soap and very expensive suede shoes (that did not work well in the aforementioned hot season in Mali). Venice was enchanting as we strolled over the Bridge of Sighs with a gelato and drank wine in Piazza San Marco and watched the gondolas drift by on the Grand Canal. Barcelona, Lisbon, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Paris…we’ve visited many proper cities and had enjoyable times.

Paris august 2012 - 066

Being fancy at a fancy Parisian sidewalk cafe with our fancy sunglasses.

But unless you are Jason Bourne being chased through Europe by CIA operatives and Interpol, these fancy places don’t involve a whole lot of adventure. You eat good food, you see pretty churches, you visit an art museum with Picassos and Monets. Pleasant, but for me not so memorable.

That’s why Mali struck such a cord with me. A simple Saturday drive through Bamako to the grocery store was more memorable than any stroll down the Champs-Élysées or the Ramblas. Right in the center of town a herd of longhorn cattle might cross the road in front of your car (which makes a unique excuse as to why you are late to something).

We always played played “What’s on the Moto?” in which we tried to find the most bizarre

thing being carried on a moto, the small motorcycles that inundate every road in Bamako. Some of the contenders:

  • A guy driving his moto with three tires over his body (I think Wile E. Coyote did that once)
  • two guys carrying three live sheep (a very interesting ménage à cinq)
  • a guy carrying a 20-foot-long metal pipe (jousting never goes out of fashion)
  • a guy clutching a large pane of sheet glass (what could possibly go wrong?)
  • a guy balancing a 55-gallon steel drum on the seat behind him

You might also have an encounter with a Malian police officer in his royal blue shirt and police-nationale-agents-service-securitejaunty black beret. If you’re new to town and stupid like we were, you actually pull over when they blow their whistle at you. Then you go through a long, drawn out ordeal in which they take your auto registration card, you tell them you don’t speak French, they speak louder and more forcefully, they mention that you can pay a “fine” on the spot to avoid a trip to the station, you try to figure out why they pulled you over in the first place, you call the American Embassy and hand the phone to the officer, he yells some more, he walks away with your registration card and phone, you get out and chase after him, and he either tells you to leave or you give him a couple of dollars.

What’s more convenient is to pretend you don’t see or hear the policeman at all, and just blow right on past him. It feels very Bonnie and Clyde, without the machine guns, thankfully. Speaking of guns, my first taxi ride in Bamako had four of us smashed in the back along with a Malian soldier in the front seat, his gun over his shoulder and pointing pretty much at my head. Every time we hit a bump in the road (in other words, every 3 seconds), I cocked my head in another direction to avoid an accidental discharge. All that adventure for a $1 taxi fare.

Adventure is at every turn in Bamako….a village on an island in the middle of the Niger River, right in the middle of town, that makes you feel you went back in time. A boat ride puppeton the Niger in a pirogue loaded with cold beer, seeing people living in corrugated metal shacks next to mansions along the shore. Shopping at the Grande Marche outdoor market, a never-ending maze of stalls full of locals buying and selling everything from colorful fabric to toothpaste to soccer balls to warthog heads. Musical concerts in which waterfallan audience member always jumps on stage to dance with the musicians and the rest of us are on our feet dancing right along. Hippos. Crocodiles. Having a sheep ritually slaughtered for Tabaski right outside my classroom window. Massive peace rallies. Outdoor parties in the sweltering heat where your clothes are soaked with sweat but you dance anyway. Malian puppet shows where massive, bigger-than-life creatures dance to the beat of African drums. A horse and rider galloping down the main road, dodging the cars and trucks. Boarding your plane from a stairway from the tarmac like they did in the 1950s. Standing under a tall waterfall in the bush just outside of the city.

I like pretty, but I like adventure more.


Au revoir, Mali. K’an bεn. Thank you for fulfilling my childhood fantasy and better yet, for making me a better person. Until we meet again…


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 decide.   photo:

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

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:

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:

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:

High tech data analysis tool

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:

Better pay, more respect than teaching…order up!

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:

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker?

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:

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.


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


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.


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 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:

Alice always makes it better. Source:

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:

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:

—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).


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:

Cue exotic chanty/whiny music.

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



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.

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:

Dark hair…check! Moustache…check! Big gun…yikes!

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.



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:

Now, get out the van and DANCE!

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.


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

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…”)


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

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:

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

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


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

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.





cv 1

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.


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.).

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.

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 2.40.30 PM

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.


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.


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.


Provence, je t’aime….

Bamako, n'b'i fè.

Bamako, n’b’i fè.