Chapter 36: Back on the Chain Gang – Tide Powder, Cincinnati, & Uzbek Line Cutters

Once at the Milan airport, a group of armed soldiers waved Jamey and me over as we were about to exit the immigration area. They spent a minute rifling through our bags until one of them pulled a Ziploc full of white powder from my roller bag and held it high, maybe like Tony Montana did in Scarface.

“It’s Tide-Plus-A-Touch-of-Downy-Powder-Laundry-Detergent!” I blurted out.

But they didn’t speak English, so I resorted to using my extensive mime skills–pouring imaginary detergent into a washer, turning the dial, mimicking an agitator, reenacting the spin cycle, and so on.

By then the soldier had opened the Ziploc and smelled the distinctive April fresh scent.

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I don’t think Tony Montana is surrounded by Tide laundry detergent. Image: Still from movie “Scarface”

Since no one had yet invented cocaine laced with the smell of springtime, I’m guessing he realized I was simply a traveler with good hygiene practices, and he sent us on our way. But I’ve used Tide liquid ever since.

Encountering authorities is bad enough in my own home country, but it’s super scary having to deal with this in another country with another language and often some wonky laws (or absence thereof). I’m no dummy—I watch “Locked Up Abroad” on the National Geographic Channel, and know for certain I don’t ever want to be in a Pakistani prison. That’s why I don’t even jaywalk or litter or sneeze without covering my mouth when I’m in foreign locales. But I have had my moments…

One afternoon when I was a high school exchange student in Peru, I set off my own to do a little souvenir shopping at the central market. This was one of those noisy, colorful, odiferous, maze-like markets full of exotic produce and dried beans and unrefrigerated meat and live guinea pigs (don’t ask) and clothes and knickknacks galore. I bought a few things, including a bouquet of flowers to take back to my host mother.

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In Peru, when I finally learned to avoid crowds.

On my walk back home I cut through the main plaza which seemed unusually busy with crowds of people. “Another festival?” I wondered to myself. They held a lot of festivals in this country. But unless there was a festival that involved protesting students throwing stones through the windows of the university, and military helicopters hovering overhead, and swarms of soldiers surrounding the plaza (all which happened within seconds of my arrival), I was most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the soldiers eyed me suspiciously as I made my way out of the main square, but I think in his estimation, a skinny, 16-year-old gringo holding a spray of powder pink carnations and lemon yellow Gerbera daisies didn’t pose much of a threat to the safety and security of Trujillo, Peru. He let me pass and I sprinted all the way home, thrilled that I wasn’t put in the clinker with the stone throwers.

Another time, during a backpacking trip through Europe in college, my friends and I arrived in the Athens airport and saw a poster advertising cheap flights to Egypt. We didn’t hesitate a minute, immediately dashing over to the EgyptAir ticket counter. Three hours later we were landing at the Cairo airport, where I envisioned us deplaning and seeing the pyramids in the distance and camels carrying turbaned riders and a King Tut impersonator (I had an active imagination).

pyramid

I owe my presence here to Cincinnati.

Instead, we walked down the plane stairs into a Soul Train-style line of soldiers holding rifles with very long bayonets attached. Next, we were herded into the immigration room to show our Egyptian visas which, oops, we forgot to get before we left Greece. So we were hauled off to a room where an official looking immigration guy with a distractingly large mustache eyed our passports, page by page, without saying a word.

After a few moments, he looked up and said, “Do you know Cincinnati?” Now this was probably the last sentence in the world I expected an immigration official to mutter at this point. I was expecting more like, “Do you mind trying on this prison uniform to check your size?” or “Have you ever heard of waterboarding?” So the Cincinnati question was good.

“Yes, of course!” we answered enthusiastically. “Great city!”

“My brother lives there,” he explained proudly. Fortunately I had been to Cincinnati on a quick weekend trip a year before to see a Reds game, so I tried to recall everything possible about this city. I told him that it was the chili capital of the world, but their chili was weird because it was poured over spaghetti. I think he actually smiled for the first time (I think, because his massive moustache hid the lower portion of his face), so I kept the Cincinnati trivia flowing (e.g. Doris Day was born there, it was called the Paris of America in the 1800s, etc.).

It seemed to do the trick because he began to joke with us, waived the mandatory rule about changing $150 into Egyptian pounds, and gave us a visa stamp on the spot. Whew! Now on to find that Tut impersonator!

On another occasion, we were at the airport departing Dakar, Senegal in West Africa after an adventurous trip to the nearby Cape Verde islands. My three travel mates, including Jamey, zipped through the immigration line ahead of me and were out of my sight. I slipped my passport into the opening of the glass window of the immigration officer. He tried scanning my passport numerous times and, for whatever reason, the chip was not scanning.

I could tell he was growing frustrated with each swipe. Now, instead of swiping

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Feeling great in Senegal (before the airport incident).

continuously with the same negative results, he could have simply typed in the nine digits and been done with it. But no, this very high strung, on edge immigration officer in army fatigues kept swiping, over and over, his blood pressure rising by the second.

“YOU NO GO! YOU NO GO!” he screamed at me with eyes bulging, as everyone around took a step back from me.

Of course my travel companions were probably already at the gate, and everyone around me now was Senegalese and thinking I was a member of a drug cartel. My minimal French was not going to get me out of this one.

So, as I learned years earlier, when facing a crime, use theatrical mime. So I pointed to

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The master of mime (Marcel Marceau, not me). Image: Creative Commons

his computer, then my passport, then mimicked someone typing. However, this seemed to enrage him even more, although I wasn’t sure if it was because (1) he understood my professional level performance and didn’t like people telling him what to do, or (2) he just didn’t understand it and was angry at himself for not taking that mime class at school, or (3) he just wasn’t a mime fan (many people aren’t, I hear).

Finally, the immigration officer in the next booth intervened, took my passport, and scanned it at his window—where it worked just fine. As I hightailed it out of there, angry officer was still seething and saying many loud things in French that I know weren’t happy thoughts.

More recently, we traveled to Uzbekistan to journey along the old Silk Road route. On one in-country flight we were dropped off by a driver at the local airport at 4:30 AM. First, we waited in a slow moving line outside of the airport where the police checked our passports. Then we trudged through a parking lot to the front of the airport where another line slowly snaked inside where they were screening bags just inside the door. As we waited, groups of locals kept butting in front of us, so the line barely budged.

Once inside, we waited in another “line” (it was actually what we commonly refer to in America as a “mob”) to get our tickets. Again, many local folks were weaving in front of us, so I finally waded through the crowd and got to the counter where I secured our tickets. I was a little sweaty at this point, and nervous that we would miss our flight.

Lo and behold there was yet another “line” to get into the security area. There were no officials herding this crowd, no rope barriers, no stanchions—just a mass of people trying to enter a single door. As Westerners commonly do, we went to the end of the mob and patiently waited while local after local cut to the front and elbowed their way into the door. We were going nowhere fast, and our flight time was getting closer.

I felt my anger growing, much like that Senegalese immigration officer (he would have handled this crowd, I’m sure, but his head would have probably exploded). So I took action. I formed a human barrier using my body and roller bag, and a German guy joined in. This temporarily stooped the line cutters, though they were none too happy. They stood three inches from my face, staring right at me, then began laughing and saying (most likely) nasty things about me in Uzbek (it’s not the most attractive-sounding language anyway, and it sounded worse coming from these bullies.

We finally made it through the door. As we were waiting in line for the single x-ray screening machine to scan our bags, I told my friend to pose while I took her photo with my iPhone, carefully making sure I got the line cutters in the background so I had visuals for what I knew would make a good travel story. But they caught me red-handed, and knew they had been in the shot. And they started yelling.

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Uzbekistan, without a line cutter in sight.

We hurried through the scanning area and just as I was looking for a spot to hide, an airport official (also with a huge mustache) grabbed my shoulder. The line cutters were screaming and yelling at him while pointing at me, and he looked none too thrilled. I checked his hands to see if he had a taser or billy club, but so far, so good.

He explained in broken English that the line cutters were upset I took their picture. I tried to explain I was just taking a picture of my friend, but he wasn’t buying it. He asked me to show the pictures on my phone, and then said sternly, “DELETE THEM.” He made me delete them as he watched, and I tried to do so very cooly so he wouldn’t notice my hands shaking.

After that, the line cutters were smirking and laughing as we walked away to our gate.

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Image: Wikipedia Commons, Book illustration of prison life. Griffiths, Arthur. “Secrets of the Prison-House” subtitled “Gaol Studies and Sketches”. Chapman & Hall, 1894.

So maybe I pressed “restore deleted photos” a short time after that. But for sure I didn’t have to join a Uzbek chain gang.

 

 

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Chapter 35: Hear No Evil, Smell No Evil

When my family added HBO to our cable line-up, I was one satisfied kid. I liked nothing more than sitting in our shag-carpeted rec room in the basement, watching movie after movie after movie, until my eyes were glossed over. I was a premium cable channel zombie, and proud of it.

But there was one thing that brought me out of that TV stupor, and that’s when one of my sisters came down to the basement, plopped on the couch, opened a bag of Fritos, and started crunching away. One, that crunching sound—like someone chewing river gravel—penetrated my brain like a dentist drill. And two, that aroma that came from eating Fritos was horrifying to me–a mixture of dirty socks crossed with bad breath and burnt popcorn. Even if I was watching Boy in the Plastic Bubble, right at the part where Tod is about to risk death by leaving his bubble for the girl next door, I’d run from the rec room to escape that smell.

I’ve always been acutely aware of scents and sounds, which as a kid concerned me. None of my friends ever seemed to be bothered by these things. Was I part beagle? Alien? Cyborg? Why was I the only one so affected by these two senses? I mean, I can hardly follow the story line of a movie in a theatre because of the open-mouth-crunching popcorn eaters (who seemingly go unnoticed by everyone else). If I’m a half block downwind of a person with body odor or halitosis, I’ll hold my breath until I pass out. If someone within a mile radius of me is doing that thing where they pop 80 bubbles in rapid machine-gun-succession every time they chew down on a piece of Juicy Fruit, I pray for a piano to fall on them from above. I don’t think I’d mind the sound of the piano crashing even one tiny bit.

It’s something I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember. When I was a high school

At 7972.4 feet up in the Andes at Machu Picchu, I finally discovered fresh air in Peru.

exchange student, I was overwhelmed with the general stinkiness of my host country, Peru—so much so that I applied cologne under my nose every time I went outside. It was a tough decision every day: Do I reek of Hai Karate or Aqua Velva, or do I allow the scent of human urine and poo and diesel fumes and rotting garbage to enter my nostrils freely? Now granted, I’m sure New York and Chicago have similar odors, but I was a Midwestern boy from a small town who was used to smelling fresh cut grass, Herbal Essence shampoo, and ham and cheese casseroles in the oven. Aside from the cabbage field by our house that smelled like farts near harvest time, my town smelled pretty good. Even the boy’s bathroom at my school didn’t smell bad, although I did have an aversion to the scent of that sawdust-looking stuff the janitor sprinkled when a kid vomited in the classroom. And that sound of vomiting would make me want to…well, you know.

This sensory affliction does make traveling and living abroad a tricky proposition. When I

Italy…I can’t smell any B.O. up here.

backpacked through Europe during a college summer, I remember a 10-hour overnight train ride down the length of Italy in which I shared a small unairconditioned compartment with several very ripe-smelling, older gentlemen. By hour two I had rubbed a full tube of cherry Chapstick under my nose (the only pleasantly scented substance I could find), but I was still inhaling that musty, vaguely chicken soupish, sour-wash-cloth odor. Finally, I chose to surrender my paid compartment seat, and squatted on the floor in the narrow train corridor where every person on the entire train bumped into me at some point. I didn’t get much sleep, but my nostrils were pleased.

No burning suitcase smell up here!

When we lived in Mali a few years ago, I recall sitting on the couch in our house one day with the windows wide open, a fresh, spring breeze drifting through the windows. Then before I knew it, an acrid, chemically smell invaded. As I slammed the windows shut I saw a trash pile burning across the road where an old vinyl suitcase had been tossed right on top. I can still conjure up that smell in my head today. We also lived a couple kilometers from the abattoir, which is a beautiful sounding French word for slaughterhouse. Sometimes if the wind blew just the right way, the scent of butchered sheep and cows resting in the warm Malian sun would make its way to our windows. I’m still deciding if that aroma was worse than the blazing Samsonite.

Entrance into the chamber of horrors (aka, the wet market)

We now live in Shanghai, the world’s most populous city, where my nose and ears get a workout every day. For example, the wet market, a place where vendors sell fresh meat, seafood, and produce, is a stone’s throw from our apartment building. When we first moved to this neighborhood, we thought this would be a real plus—inexpensive, fresh food straight from the farmers and fisherman, right at our doorstep. But on our first visit inside I was sure I’d entered a recently unsealed crypt full of mouldering bodies. The stench was overwhelming. Plus, there were mounds of guts from fish and eels and other bizarre water creatures that were still wriggling. I fled, dry heaving into my shirt that I had pulled over my face. The only thing that would have been worse is if everyone was eating Fritos in there.

Unfortunately, we must pass the wet market daily on the way to the morning bus stop at 5:25

Wet Market, 5:30 AM, already in the red zone on the stink-o-meter

AM. And I can tell you with confidence that the very last smell you want to encounter in the pre-dawn hours is rotting seafood. But fish markets always smell bad, you might argue. But trust me, this isn’t a fresh-fish-sitting-in-crunchy-ice kind of smell one would encounter at, say, Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. That smell is almost pleasant, with a vibe that reminds you of a sleepy fishing village with colorful boats bobbing in the harbor.

But this wet market has no such vibe. Nope, this vibe is more of a “you slipped and fell into the carcass of a decomposing sperm whale that had eaten a tanker ship full of vomit.” It’s a place where the juice from those underwater creatures has run into cracks and seeped into the concrete to fester in the humid Shanghai air, day after day, turning into something that I believe could be used in warfare instead of nuclear bombs. Seriously, this odor would bring anyone to their knees–and yet, the wet market it is crowded with shoppers all day long who are certainly not dry heaving into their shirts.

It’s more than just scents here in ol’ Shanghai, though. For me, the sound that is synonymous with this city is that awful noise people make when trying to clear their throat to gather phlegm for spitting (seriously, just hearing someone say the word “phlegm” is an assault on my eardrums). But hearing the actual expulsion sound is cringe inducing for me. And trust me, I cringe a lot, because I hear it all day long, even through the closed windows of our third-floor apartment. Even when I’m wearing Bose Noise Canceling headphones. Even when we’re inside a restaurant and someone does it outside on the street. And probably even when I’m inside a submarine in the Mariana Trench 35,814 miles below sea level.

It’s horrific, like someone is hurking up a chunk of lung. And everyone does it—young people, elderly ladies, probably famous Chinese movie stars. And as with the wet market experience, this sound causes me to dry heave. Of course, there is the foul aftermath of this sound to contend with as well, which is why the sidewalks here are always dotted with wet spots and why I look down when I walk on the sidewalks here, and why our shoes have never, ever touched the floor inside of our apartment. No lung matter on my shiny wood floors, please.

Regarding this spitting thing, I’ve actually heard people say that it’s “cultural.” Yeah, no. I fully honor and embrace the many cultural differences I’ve encountered here, like how Chinese people avoid confrontation, or have no sense of personal space, or how they talk so loudly that I think they are arguing when they’re just chatting about buying eels at the wet market. But hocking up a big loogie is not a part of any culture—it’s just a terrible habit, like picking your nose or making those loud sounds when you yawn. It’s a habit that one could kick by simply drinking some hot tea, or maybe by not eating slimy, wet market sea creatures that look like they belong in a horror movie.

In the meantime, for the morning walk to the bus stop I’ll be dabbing under my nose a generous amount of Gucci Guilty Black Pour Homme cologne, a scent highlighted by notes of coriander and lavender but also with base notes of patchouli–a combination that creates a scent that’s bold and noticeable without being overpowering (or so the reviews say). As long as it’s powerful enough to mask rotten shrimp and Fritos, I’m good.

Chapter 34: Cabbages, Con Artists and Keychain Phalluses: Why We Should Approach Each New Destination with Eyes Wide Shut

Growing up in a small town in Illinois, smack in the heart of the Midwest, just about any other place in the world seemed exotic to me. I’d sprawl across my chocolate brown, vinyl beanbag chair jealously watching the Brady Bunch in their super cool L.A., split-level ranch house landscaped with palm trees, or seeing them frolic on the palm tree-lined beaches in Hawaii while on vacation.

Hold your nose.

And there I was, living next to a cornfield. Sometimes instead of corn, the farmer planted cabbage and for weeks the air smelled like farts. There’s nothing less exotic than farty-smelling air.

I remember finding information on the University of Hawaii during my college search . I imagined wearing leis every day to class and taking hula for PE credit and surfing with the Brady kids on Waikiki Beach. But nope, I went to the slightly less exotic University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, surrounded by fields of livestock that sometimes made our campus air smell like a barnyard.

That’s why when I graduated, I left the poo-related odors behind and hightailed it down to Florida, lickety-split, where I hoped the air would smell like frangipani and Coppertone and Flipper. Florida was a place I’d vacationed with my family as a youngster, and at least at that time I found it quite alluring. I distinctly remember frolicking in the waves of Daytona Beach, dodging the cars driving along the beach, and saying to my dad, “Why do we just vacation here? Why don’t we LIVE here?”

Exotic and romantic at the same time…aren’t palm trees grand?

So, I was pretty sure I had hit the exotic jackpot when post-college life took me to West Palm Beach, which sat on the Atlantic near the toasty warm gulf stream. I mean, c’mon, “palm” was even in the name of the city! Like the Bradys, I would finally have palm trees outside of my bedroom window. But, as I entered the city limits on my two-day drive to paradise, I sure didn’t see any palm trees. What I did see were plenty of bland strip malls surrounded by acres of black asphalt parking lots, oodles of traffic full of aggressive drivers, and boring glass high-rises that reflected the burning sun right into my corneas. I wouldn’t even see the palm trees even if they existed!

And while it this little burg was called “West Palm BEACH,” the city didn’t even sit right on the beach like my Rand-McNally atlas had promised me. Palm Beach, a barrier island, was in the way, mockingly blocking our access to the sea. I ended up just calling my town WPB because I was mad about the palm and the beach situation. Thankfully, it was actually WEST of something. Besides a misleading name, it also had poverty and crime and lots of drug lords too. Good thing Greg and Marcia Brady never had to deal with a murderous coke dealer—that episode would have been a real downer and not exotic at all.

I suppose that, for me, this was a good first lesson in not setting your expectations too high when you travel to a new locale. I’ve learned to approach a new destination with a clear mind, trying my best to forget about what popular culture has told me. This way, I wasn’t so disappointed when we went to Rio de Janeiro and the tour guide told us we could leave the van for no more than 30 seconds to take a quick picture at Copacabana Beach because if we stayed longer we’d be robbed or sexually assaulted or stabbed with a rusty knife (true story).

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 3-2-1…smile! Lovely. NOW GET BACK IN THIS VAN AND LOCK THE DOORS!

Never mind that every movie that’s set in Rio shows smiling bikini-clad locals frolicking in the sand, sipping caphirinas, while “The Girl from Ipanema” plays in the background. Instead, just imagine bikini-clad models brandishing jagged blades and stealing your passport and ATM card, and you won’t be disappointed in the least. And speaking of ATMs, we used ours at a bank in Rio where rogue security guards had rigged a tiny camera at the ATM to steal log-in codes and, a few days later, $3,000 out of our account. Geez, that Girl from Ipanema was tall and tan and young and lovely and a damn con artist!

I’ll admit, this “setting-your-expectations-low” technique can be tricky, as evidenced by our recent visit to Bali. Bali! Who hasn’t dreamed of a beach vacation to this exotic and alluring island? When we got our first international teaching job in Mali (with an “M”), people often thought we said Bali (with a “B”) when they asked us where we were going to live. We would realize this as soon as they said things like, “Oh, you’ll be living in paradise! White sand beaches and tropical drinks all day long!” Then we’d tell them that actually we were heading to a landlocked, third world country in West Africa with high rates of malaria. It was exotic, but just in another way.

But now we were finally headed to Bali (with a “B”). As much as I tried to suppress all pop culture references, I kept picturing Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love,” finding her inner peace in Bali’s spiritual center of Ubud.

Ubud, Bali. Now I know that inner peace has to be around here somewhere…

Instead, our visit to Ubud found us caught in an hours long, exhaust-choked traffic jam that snaked through streets that were completely lined with cheap souvenir shops. Not sure how spiritual I felt surrounded by Bali beer koozies and penis keychains emblazoned with BALI along the shaft.

As much as I tried to purge it from my mind, I pictured Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in “The Road to Bali,” gallivanting around idyllic islands, finding sunken treasure chests in crystal blue waters, and frolicking on pristine beaches. Instead, we were surrounded by drunk Aussies in stained tank tops on discount vacations, and busloads full of chattering Chinese tourists with sword like selfie sticks who blocked every view we wanted to see. Even in the remote Balian countryside, I couldn’t get a single shot of a terraced rice field without a Chinese person’s head in my photo.

As much as I tried to ignore it, I also wanted the song “Bali H’ai” from South Pacific to serenade me to sleep while I lounged in a hammock tied between two palm trees on the beach. Instead, our resort blasted techno music at 9:45 AM for the water aerobics class attended by three people.

Bali countryside. My intimate portrait in the remote, terraced rice fields.

And while there are more picturesque beaches on the island, our resort sat on a public beach lined with local folks selling cheap beer out of coolers. Plus there was construction work going on where a jack hammer was involved. No amount of fruity tropical drinks can make a jack hammer sound as pleasant as Bali H’ai.

It was the same experience on our long weekend trip to Hong Kong. Way back in the recesses of my brain I pictured James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in Die Another Day, emerging out of Victoria Harbor in soaking wet pajamas and nonchalantly strolling into the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Or William Holden in The World of Suzie Wong, wandering down the atmospheric streets of 1960s Hong Kong, getting a haircut outside in a quaint outdoor street market.

Hong Kong. Just a quiet, little afternoon stroll.

In reality, we drowned in a sea of fancy cars with dark window tint, and mobs of serious-looking business people, and dozens of shiny skyscrapers that blocked the sunshine, and luxury malls on every corner full of Versace gowns and Prada shoes. Our one-hour search for a sidewalk café ended at Costa Coffee, a chain coffee shop which had the only outdoor seating we could find. Suzie Wong would be appalled.

On the other hand, some of our journeys have far exceeded our expectations. Our trip last year to Bhutan, a country which measures Gross National Happiness, made me, well, darn happy. Bhutan actually looks like the gorgeous and enthralling Bhutan one sees in the movies. I may as well have been Chris Isaak in Little Buddha, strolling through this exotic country trying to figure out if my son is the reincarnation of Buddha, because it looks exactly the same–down to the strings of colorful, triangular flags flapping in the wind along the mountainsides.

There were no Starbucks, no drunk, vomiting college kids, and no penis keychains. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of carved wooden penises because they relate to the history of the country (it’s a long story, haha) but they are not painted down the shaft with “My parents went to Bhutan and all I got with this lousy phallus.”

Experiencing the exotic flora of Bhutan.

We even lucked out and had the King of Bhutan walk past us one morning, giving us a little head nod. I’m pretty sure that even the Brady Bunch didn’t meet royalty, though Marcia did meet Davey Jones from the Monkees in one episode.

Maybe Bhutan looks authentic because it highly regulates tourism to lessen the impact on the things that make this country unique. There are a limited amount of visitors allowed in at a time, you have to use a licensed Bhutanese tour agency, and you have to spend at least $250/day. So sure, it’s restrictive, but at least Bhutan doesn’t look like a phony EPCOT exhibit overrun with selfie-taking tourists giving high fives to Buddha statues (yep, saw that once). You don’t come here to drink yourself into oblivion or to have a venti soy caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks or to buy real/fake Dior sunglasses. You can, however, sip a local Druk beer while you watch an archery contest, or try some butter tea with toasted rice as you watch monks chant in a temple, or buy a prayer wheel or carved mask of a deity with horns and fangs (did them all, thank you). That’s better than a personalized penis key chain any day.

The Maldives was another country that exceeded our expectations too. Now granted, this is a high-priced, once-in-a-lifetime destination that you save for a super special occasion. But even fancy places can disappoint. Trump’s sassy Mar-a-Lago private club—where I once had lunch–was recently cited for 13 food safety violations in its restaurant. This included “Nonexempt fish offered raw or undercooked has not undergone proper parasite destruction.” Nothing says fancy like being infected with the fish tapeworm Diphyllobothrium latum.

Maldives, Indian Ocean. Expectations exceeded, but in a pricey kind of way.

So, I approached the Maldives trip with as little anticipation as I could muster. Which immediately evaporated when we exited the airport, crossed the street to the sea, and boarded our resort’s speedboat for a 45-minute trip across dolphin-filled, aqua waters to our resort located on its own tropical isle surrounded with white sand beaches and pots of free gold. Okay, no gold, but it was still pretty darn spectacular. Short of someone telling me I was appointed the next king of Bhutan, I couldn’t imagine anything more divine.

The dream world continued as we were led to our bungalow that hovered above five shades of turquoise ocean that sparkled in the sun like it was full of Harry Winston diamonds (I did some snorkeling and there were, in fact, no diamonds, just a cruel trick played by the sun). There were even stairs leading from our private deck right down into that crystal-clear water. James Bond should have DEFINITELY emerged from here instead of that murky green stuff in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. I wouldn’t be surprised if he picked up a parasite in that water.

Then there are those few places that neither exceed nor elude your expectations. Before traveling to North Korea, I had only seen photos showing it as dreary, cheerless, and dictator-y. During my visit, I found it to be dreary, cheerless, and dictator-y. Maybe even extra, extra dictator-y.

Pyongyang, North Korea. Misty water color memories (if you only had beige and grey watercolors in your paint set).

But then again, when 70% of the people are starving and 40% suffer from malnutrition (while their ruler’s wife carries a $1600 Dior purse), I wasn’t exactly expecting the locals to break out in a musical number in the middle of Kim Il-sung Square. With 800,000 square feet of paving, that square can fit up to 100,000 people so the musical number possibilities are endless. But I don’t think they’re feeling it at the moment. I’m nearly certain, however, that living next to a farty-smelling cabbage field would seem quite exotic to most North Koreans.

 

 

Chapter 33: Flu Time in a Totalitarian Dictatorship, or Why I Came Home with Three Toblerone Chocolate Bars

Fessler trip west jul 1975

Even the black cowboy hat couldn’t make me feel better.

On our family summer trip when I was a teenager, I came down with the flu in Cheyenne, Wyoming, smack in the middle of the Frontier Days festivities. Nothing like watching a rodeo when your high fever makes you think the cowboys are centaurs. I spent part of the night shivering in a tent at a campground, until my mom dragged me to the car where I slept (sort of) across the back seat, having nightmares that a scary rodeo clown was chasing me with a barbed wire lasso.

Years later I came down with the flu on New Year’s Eve in Barcelona. I discovered that drinking a gallon or so of beer doesn’t actually cure the flu, but it makes being delirious even that much more fun–just what the doctor ordered on New Year’s Eve! My memories of Barcelona are all multi-colored and sparkly.

Beer...better than Tylenol.

Beer…better than Tylenol.

On a recent holiday I also had another visit from Mr. Flu Bug, but this time it was during a trip to North Korea. And seriously, if you think nothing can be worse than a vacation to the bleakest place on earth, try doing it with aching muscles, a 102 degree fever, and chills. So, while our friends and colleagues were jetting off healthily to white sand beaches in the South Pacific or to quaint European hamlets, I was infirm in the country where dog meat sells for 25 cents a pound–if you can get it before it sells out.

Now, when it comes to a place where miserable people are as obvious as a black delegate at the Republican National Convention, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is it. And these miserable people didn’t even have the flu. They are just miserable from the lack of food, freedom, and hope in general.

Visiting the world’s most repressive regime wasn’t a decision we made lightly. True, you img_0534won’t find the DPRK on Condé Nast Traveler’s list of “Best Places to Visit in 2016” along with Martinique and Iceland. We knew it wouldn’t be fancy or relaxing or have overwater bungalows with butlers and complimentary slippers like the Maldives where we vacationed a few months prior (although the cost was similar). And it’s not like we say, “Oh, we should definitely visit a country where the leader is toying with nuclear weapons, the population is malnourished, and the U.S. State Department issues warnings like this:

The State Department strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the DPRK due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, which imposes unduly harsh sentences, including for actions that in the United States would not be considered crimes…”

Things this could say: "DPRK Number One!" or "This is how many banners you have to steal from a hotel to get a 15 year prison term." or "Quick! Glance up! Haha, you stupid American imperialists do anything we say!" or "If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times. You don't need to eat to be happy!"

Things this could say: “DPRK Number One!” or “This is how many banners you have to steal from a hotel to get a 15 year prison term.” or “Quick! Glance up! Haha, you stupid American imperialists do anything we say!” or “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times. You don’t need to eat to be happy!”

The DPRK is mostly undiscovered territory for non-Chinese tourists—only about 2,000 non-Chinese visit each year, and only 400 or so are Americans—so we were curious to see this secretive and mysterious place for ourselves. And besides, over the years we’ve found that people-to-people contact is one of the best ways to dispel myths and stereotypes about each other. Of course we heard the old standby criticism “But you’re giving money to dictators blah, blah, blah.” Well, listen here Patty Patriotism. Every time you buy some cheap plastic crap at your beloved Walmart, you’re inadvertently supporting dictators too, so there!

We were fully aware that in case of trouble while we were there, there was no American embassy in the DPRK to rescue us. We were told that that the Swedish embassy actually provides basic consular protection services to Americans. You have to wonder what embassy assignment day looks like in Sweden:

Swedish official: “Ingrid Johansson, you’ll be going to our embassy in Paris!”

(Happy squeals and applause).

Swedish official: “Sven Nillson, you’re assigned to our embassy in the British Virgin islands!”

(Hoots and hollers and more applause).

Swedish official: “Gustav Karlsson, you’ll be staffing our embassy in Pyongyang.”

Gustav: “Excuse me, sir. Did you say ping pong?”

Swedish official: “No, Mr. Karlsson. I said Pyongyang. As in North Korea.”

Gustav: “Is this because of all those speeding tickets I have? Or because I badmouthed IKEA? Or because I don’t like meatballs? Please, please, anywhere but Pyongyang!”

I guess I really wanted to see for myself if everything we hear about North Korea is as

The Louis Armstrong of Pyongyang, obviously playing an anti-American song.

The Louis Armstrong of Pyongyang, obviously playing an anti-American song.

awful as they say. The DPRK officially describes itself as a “self-reliant socialist state that formally holds elections.” However, critics (e.g. the entire rest of the world) regard it as a totalitarian dictatorship and that is just never fun no matter how you look at it. It’s also been called Stalinist, especially with the godlike appeal of current leader Kim Jong-un (born 1983 or 1984—nobody knows for sure and you can’t ask or you’ll suffer the consequences). It was said that he was selected over his older brothers because one was too feminine and the other tried to sneak into Tokyo to go to Disneyland. It’s all about priorities.

21223553398_b0d5e7de0b_k1-994x663-1Weighing in at  290 pounds, the world’s youngest state leader went to boarding school in Switzerland under an assumed name. According to his former chef, Kim Jong-un drinks Johnnie Walker whiskey, smokes fancy Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes, and likes to party all night long. His wife was recently photographed carrying a Dior purse valued at nearly $1600, which is about the average YEAR’s salary for a North Korean citizen.

The godlike appeal also applies to his late father Kim Jong-il (1941-2011). Our guide toldDSCF3016 us that that Kim Jong Il was born on a sacred Korean mountain top and that his birth caused winter to change to spring, and I was thinking, “Wow, he’s just like Storm from the X-Men!” (Note to self: learn that trick ASAP). Well, don’t spill the beans to the citizens of the DPRK, but he was actually born in the Soviet Union, and it stayed winter when he was born. As a matter of fact, the winter of 1941 – 1942 is known as the coldest winter of the 20th Century.

However, the cult of personality most especially applies to Kim Jong-un’s late grandfather Kim Il-sung (1912-1994). As a matter of fact, even though grandpa has been dead for a-mural-in-wonsan-north-korea-depicting-kim-il-sung-user-yeowatzup-flickr-commonsmore than 20 years, he still remains the official DPRK president, AND the general-secretary of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea, AND the chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. This guy’s got three jobs and he hasn’t breathed for 22 years! Geez, whatever happened to “rest in peace?”

Just like Irene Cara in Fame, Kim Il-sung wanted to live forever. Apparently, according to his former doctor, he would regularly take blood transfusions from people in their 20s, and would also spend hours watching children play—all part of a plan to live to 100 (or the plot of a super-creepy horror movie). Word to the wise: He died at 84, so skip the transfusions. However, every adult is required to wear a pin every day on their shirt with his face on it. Plus there are around 34,000 statues of him in the country. And his portrait (side-by-side with Kim Jong-un’s chubby little mug) is everywhere and is required to be hung in every home. Our guide said every family even gets a special towel that you can only use to dust the portraits each morning. And don’t worry, the government does random spot checks to make sure everyone complies. So yeah, he’s gonna live forever, dust-free.

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Thank goodness at least the sky had color.

The capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang, is a dreary city that looks more like a faded backlot stage set at Universal Studios. When you have the flu, it somehow manages to look even drearier. There are lots of beige, grey, and faded pastel buildings, all concrete and without a particular architectural style—unless “plain, concrete, rectangular prism” is a style. There is one exception: the bizarre, pyramidal 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which was started almost 30 years ago and is still not done, although our guide said it was “close to completion.” It holds the illustrious title of the tallest unoccupied building in the world, and may keep the title for a long, long time.

There are wide concrete roadways pocked with basketball-sized potholes, but shoddy road maintenance doesn’t really matter because there aren’t many vehicles on the road. On our three-hour drive to the DMZ at Kaesong, a Mister-Toad’s-Wild-Ride sort of adventure in which the driver constantly swerved to avoid the road craters, I could count on one hand the number of vehicles we passed. There are only five advertising billboards in Pyongyang (all of them owned by the same automobile dealership) so there isn’t much to distract drivers either. Well, aside from those craters.

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Stand wherever you like. As long as it’s on one of the white spots.

Even in my delirium, I know we saw plenty of sprawling concrete plazas with giant statues of one or more of the Kims (which sometimes looked like their eyes were following me, but that could be flu-induced vision), but these plazas were mostly empty of live people. However, there were plenty of little splotches of paint on the ground in these plazas, spaced equally apart, indicating exactly where people must stand in well-measured formation when they have big events. Now that’s what you call “crowd control.”

Even without the flu this place would feel surreal, like being inside one of those dystopian novels where plague has wiped out most of humanity, and we just wander around trying to avoid the evil warlords who now govern the planet. It certainly didn’t feel like 2016. Well, actually it isn’t 2016 in the DPRK. That’s because North Korea uses something called the “Juche” calendar which began on April 15, 1912, the day Kim Il-sung was born. So we were currently enjoying the year 104 in North Korea.

We did see a few people, but always from afar because we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone but our guides. It made me wonder if these people were really actors brought in to line the roads that we drove along, just so our guides could say, “Why look at how cheerful and busy our city is, just like Boise!” One day, as our bus waited at a red light, I waved to a cute toddler on the sidewalk who began to wave back. But suddenly the mom yanked him by the arm and started shouting at him. I’m guessing it was something about “Death to the American imperialists” or whatever.

Another day we were walking to a souvenir shop and a parade of schoolchildren literally img_0496just appeared and crossed our path, sort of like when the Electric Light Parade pops up at DisneyWorld. At first I thought it was another flu-related vision, but everyone seemed to notice this. The kids were singing and holding flags and banners with Korean writing (probably “Death to the American imperialists”), and didn’t once make eye contact with us or smile. I asked the guide why there was a kid’s parade happening at 6:00 PM when we weren’t near any schools, and there were no other people around. I was told that these types of “impromptu displays of patriotism” were common. I just smiled, nodded, and thought to myself that (a) these children will now haunt me in my dreams, and (b) these kiddos were definitely automatons, or at the very least automaton-like. Yep, this was a place where you could definitely feel the heavy hand of the government smooshing the joy out everything in its reach.

Even before we arrived in the DPRK, we sort of had the joy squished out of us too after reading about the typical rules governing tourists. This included:

  • Do not bring books about DPRK or the Korean “situation.”
  • Do not carry in American or South Korean flags or clothes prominently showing these, or books, magazines, or newspapers from South Korea.
  • Do not wear clothes with political or obscene slogans.
  • DO NOT bring in Bibles (the regime believes that Kim Il-sung is the supreme leader, so Bibles are considered an attempt to influence people’s beliefs).
  • Do not bring a camera lens over 150mm.
  • Don’t mention the movie “The Interview” (which was not going to be a problem since I don’t discuss terribly written and acted movies).
  • Don’t photograph anything or anyone military or “strategic.”
  • Do not take photographs from behind the statues of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il, and don’t photograph their feet, or just a part of the statue; make sure the entire body is in the frame.
  • Do not take photos of poverty, shops, or housing, and don’t try sneaking photos.
  • Basically, don’t take a photo of anything unless you ask the guide first.
  • Do not enter the country if you are a full or part-time journalist or photographer.
  • Do not leave the hotel unescorted.
  • Don’t crumple up or throw away any newspaper or piece of paper with pictures of leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un; don’t fold these papers so that any leader’s face is creased.
  • Don’t smoke, eat, or chew gum at sites of national importance.
  • If you are not willing to bow at the statues of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il, do not visit the DPRK as the potential for offense to be taken by the hosts is too great.

One thing that was clear from the moment we arrived until the minute we departed, is that

One of the grand theatre is adorned with this mural of a peasant who is packing.

One of the grand theatre is adorned with this mural of a peasant who is packing.

they really, really, really hate the United States. Not just an “I-hate-those-ugly-$2000-Yeezy-shoes-that-Kanye-designed” kind of hate, but an honest-to-goodness, deep to the core, loathing that obviously has been pounded into their brains since birth. Sure, I expected this because I read quite a bit about the country beforehand. And to be honest, I thought I could laugh it off. Well, laugh it off internally, of course…no North Korean prison for this American! Speaking of prison, just prior to our trip, the DPRK sentenced 21-year old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor after accusing him of removing a political banner from his hotel. Good times.

But by Day Two, even with my brain operating at 50% capacity due to illness, I was ready to go all Kate Smith and start belting out God Bless America in her deep contralto voice, arms pointed to the heavens, hands waving multiple American flags. I really wanted to believe that sticks and stones would break my bones but words would never hurt me. But geez Louise, what about when those words are “imperialistic oppressors,”“cowards,” “colonialists,” and “aggressors,” and you hear them every ten minutes and the people are kind of smiling when they say it and you can’t really come toblerone-chocolate-barback with a witty retort like “I know you are but what am I?” or “asphinctersayswhat?” One morning a guide randomly quipped, “People in the DPRK, even children too, don’t like Americans. They ask, ‘Mommy why are Americans so mean?’” Uh, hello North Korean guide…I’m standing right here, and I have three Toblerone chocolate bars that I’m supposed to present to you at the end of our tour but now I’m thinking of eating them all tonight.

We love white daisies and hate Americans!

We love white daisies and hate Americans!

Now, I realize the government encourages/requires this name calling, and saying something complimentary about Americans would probably not end well for them. But it got very tiresome hearing about how the U.S. was literally responsible for everything bad in the DPRK, e.g. The U.S. started the Korean War. The U.S. is occupying poor South Korea. The U.S. destroyed every building in Pyongyang during the Korean War (um, that one is sort of true). The U.S. is responsible for the famine in the DPRK.

Actually, they didn’t blame us for the really bad coifs we saw on so many women there. fekkai-repair_300That’s what you get for not using the services of a salon professional, or using a healthy dose of Frederic Fekkai Ageless Overnight Hair Repair—that stuff really works. But then I discovered that these hair-don’ts really aren’t their fault after all. There are state-sanctioned haircuts, and married women are required to get a butchy, short cut (or else).

It was all very strange because we had read so much about how the North Koreans place such great value on politeness and respect, and how they are very sensitive to any slights (perceived or real) against them. And I’m down with that because really, aren’t we all just asking for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T? And I’m happy to give it.

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One of our meals. I was momentarily excited when I saw the dish in the middle row, second from left as they almost looked like crinkle cut fries. But it was pieces of seasoned acorn jelly.

So when one restaurant offered us a traditional Korean dish called gaejangguk (“It’s dog soup,” the guide told us matter-of-factly), we didn’t say “EEWW!” or “Scooby Doobie Doo, where are you?” or “Lassie’s in duh house!” as we declined the offer (while throwing up a little in our mouth). Maybe the flu had put me in a mood, but all I could think was: If we can display cultural sensitivity toward them even when it involves PetSmart on the menu, could they at least skip telling us that North Korean kids hate us?

But again, I’m pretty sure the guides are persuaded/required to say these things, and they do have minders that watch them watch us. We heard that even a minor slip of the tongue, e.g. “Michele Obama has such toned arms,” can send a citizen to the prison camps. It was scary talking to the guides, wanting to ask them a million questions but worried about (a) possibly going to prison for saying something the government deemed criminal or (b) getting them sent to a prison for answering one of our questions. So we kept to the basics, as best as we could—weather, family, food, the absurdity of Donald Trump (yes, even without the World Wide Web, they asked about him).

It was during these conversations, benign as they were, that things felt the most authentic img_0518to me. We commiserated about the frustrations of raising kids, about balancing work and personal life, and about finding time to pursue our own hobbies. We had teachers in our tour group, so when we visited a school the local teachers there were keenly interested in our impressions. Yes, it was all very staged (a science classroom with a 1950s microscope on each desk, an 1990s desk top computer with a flashing, colorful screensaver on a teacher’s desk), but the teachers seemed sincere and shared our same impressions of students (they stay up too late, they don’t always do their homework, they clam up when visitors come around).

The teachers were thrilled, smiling ear-to-ear, when we told them how much we enjoyed touring their school and recognized how hard teachers work. Looking back, I think that we left a good impression about Americans. And I think we all realized that, in some small way, we have some shared experiences in life. And maybe, just maybe, next time they won’t tell us that kids hate us, at least not to our face.

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“It is our wedding day, the happiest day of our lives. We are overjoyed.”

Aside from those brief up-close-and-personal moments, the DPRK was the only country I’ve ever visited that seemed mostly soulless. People didn’t smile, including an entire bridal party we saw at a park, or the passengers on a crowded subway train who slowly moved back and left a one-foot buffer around our group. Just about everywhere we went, there weren’t any signs of history or culture. There was the visit we made to Kim Il-sung’s historic birthplace village (allegedly), which consisted solely of a curiously newish-looking hut painted butter yellow. I asked our guide where the rest of the village was, and was told the other huts were moved so people could live in them and they wouldn’t be wasted. Yeah. This is also where the hut guide scolded me for putting my hands in my coat pockets as we listened to her ramble on and a cold wind whipped around us.

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Kim Il-sung’s alleged birthplace village, where you keep your hands out of your pocket and pretend it’s all historic.

It’s weird that so much mystery and hysteria surrounds a tiny country about the size of North Carolina. It’s also weird that almost 6,000,000 North Koreans–25% of the population–are in the military (world’s 4th largest army…take that, America!). In fact, just about everything about the DPRK is weird. And maybe being afflicted with the flu increased the weirdness factor. But I can’t say that my visit helped me understand this weirdness any better. It’s the only country out of the 70 or so I’ve visited where I nearly cheered when the airplane’s wheels left the runway to head home. I had much to be thankful for. I wasn’t doing hard labor in a North Korean prison camp, and this American imperialist had three Toblerone chocolate bars to eat all by himself.

 

Chapter 32: It’s a Wrap: Bumper Carts, Grocery Store Eels, & Armpit Anarchy

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Tuck

Source: http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/ (Faces blurred to protect the innocent).

Recently I trotted across the street to the sprawling Carrefour supermarket/ department store in our Shanghai suburb. Maybe “sprawling” doesn’t exactly convey just how massive this megastore is—I mean, people actually ride bikes inside. And Shanghai has 22 of these French superstores, which are sort of like a less skeevy Walmart. Seriously, here at Carrefour I haven’t seen a single mullet, butt crack, or mauve elastic pants worn as both a top and bottom.

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Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s stock shelves during our peak shopping hours!

 

Megastore shopping is a big change for us, having spent the past three years in megastore-less Bamako, Mali. Not that we felt we were missing anything in Bamako–we actually enjoyed shopping at quaint markets, hole-in-the-wall bakeries, and roadside produce stands where the food was local and fresh and there wasn’t a Pop Tart or Hot Pocket in sight. But there are 25 million people here in Shanghai–that’s three times larger than NYC, six times larger than LA, eight times bigger than Chicago, and 625 times grander than my hometown of Quincy, Illinois. So the stores really have to be jumbo-sized to handle the approximately gazillion shoppers. Go at the wrong time—the weekend, around 5PM any day—and you will play Chinese bumper carts whether you want to or not.

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It’s blurry because someone ran into me with their cart as I was taking this photo.

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Another fun day shopping at Carrefour with me and 17,000 of my closest friends/consumers.

It’s strange—you’d think that in a nation of so many damn people that they would be keenly aware of their personal space, you know, like “Gee, let me not stop in the middle of the narrow, crowded store aisle to check the WeChat on my iPhone,” or “I definitely shouldn’t ram my shopping cart into someone else’s upper thigh and act like it didn’t happen,” or “It’s just common knowledge that when one shopper is looking at something on the store shelf I should never stand directly in front of him as if he doesn’t exist,” or “I’d never think of butting right in front of someone at the checkout lane even if they already had their items on the belt in front of the checkout person,” or “I realize that not everyone comes to Carrefour to take a leisurely stroll so I’ll make sure to move aside when someone behind me is in a hurry, especially that Westerner whose face is currently turning red.” But the local folks seem to be quite clueless about these sorts of things, so Jamey and I just follow the “When in Rome…” adage and behave like clueless people too. It’s actually sort of fun pretending you are the only one in a store full of a million people, kind of the King of Carrefour with a million subjects you can ignore and bump into without regret.

anarchyYou’d also think a store of over 100,000 square feet would have everything ever manufactured worldwide since 1973, but there are some noticeable omissions. We recently searched 20 minutes for deodorant, only to discover just seven roll-ons tubes (for women) tucked near the face whitening creams. And yet the face creams take up one entire aisle. I mean, Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 4.00.58 PMobviously they have flawless complexions here, but don’t they want to “raise their hand if they’re Sure?” Then I did a bit of online research and found out that Chinese people rarely use deodorant mainly because they don’t have to! What? Due to genetic factors, their bodies do not emit the same odors that the rest of us have to try to mask with scents like Brazil, Paris, and Hawaii, which are Secret deodorant’s new flavors (strong enough for a man, but made for a jet-setting woman), or from Axe, Anarchy for Him. Anarchy? I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want a “state of disorder due to absence of authority” going on under my arms.

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Jamey getting part of our lunch from the biscuit sample girl dressed to coordinate with the biscuit box.

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You may think we are visiting the serpentorium at the zoo, but this is a food aisle at Carrefour.

I think a good quarter of the population actually work at the Carrefour too. They have dozens of check-out lanes, a lady driving a massive floor cleaner the size of a Zamboni (driven, of course, during peak store hours), multiple sales ladies in front of various products (e.g. a lady in front of the toothpastes, another in front of the crackers, one by the eggs, etc. and I’m not sure what they do besides eye us and straighten up any product we touch), young guys and gals in a row in different brightly-colored costumes shouting on loud speakers (seriously) to buy some random product (a mop, butter, some sort of machine that makes either ice cream or spackling paste), a lady that weighs your wrapped candy, others that weigh your produce, nervous-looking middle aged managerial types with stern looks pacing the aisles (maybe wondering if the Zamboni floor cleaner ran anyone over), people cooking all sorts of things like little dough packets filled with some greenish mixture, the sample ladies doling out free chocolate chip cookies (I could walk to this booth in my sleep) and tea in tiny paper cups and pound cake cubes on paper doilies, guys wrangling the live creatures that I wish were enjoying life back in the swamp they came from like turtles, bullfrogs, eels, crayfish, and giant fish, and bakery ladies who spend a lot of time arranging sassy-looking baked goods in glass display cases.

It was the bakery ladies that I visited on this particular trip as I needed to quickly pick up a birthday treat for a colleague’s birthday the following day. As mentioned earlier, a number of the bakery ladies were busy organizing 3-packs of muffins (13 RMB, or about $2.00) in a glass display case with the intensity of a Tiffany’s sales clerk arranging diamond necklaces in a 5th Avenue window display. Unlike the tens of thousands of shoppers around me, I was in a hurry so I quickly chose what I assumed would be the simplest item for them to grab and put in a box—6 mini carrot cakes about the size of cupcakes.

When I finally managed to get the attention of one of the product-arranging bakery clerks I pointed to the mini cakes and, using my best elementary school Chinese said, “Liù” which means six, and sort of sounds like you’re saying “Leo” in a deep Southern accent while having a mouth full of cheese grits. The clerk looked at me like I had said, “This is a stick up! Give me all your carefully-arranged muffins!” Which I might have actually said since one tonal change in Chinese can create a whole new word. So I did the “five fingers, one thumb” sign and she nodded, still with a look of surprise though.

At this point I expected them to pick up the six mini cakes—which were already housed on cute little plastic plates with a clear bubble cover–and place them in one of the boxes I saw behind the counter. But this is what two of them did: Placed each mini cake (still in its

Taking a rest on my wrapped up carrot cake squares.

Taking a rest on my wrapped up carrot cake squares.                                                                 Source:http://www.vijaybisht.in/2013/04/worlds-largest-ball-of-plastic-wrap.html

 

plastic bubble) in an individual cellophane bag that they folded over and taped; then placed two of these wrapped cakes each into a larger cellophane bag that they folded over and taped, then placed the three larger bags (containing two smaller bags of already bubble encased mini cakes) into a large plastic bag that they—you guessed it—folded over and taped. I was sure that I could put these into a time capsule and they would still be fresh in 2115. At school the next day it took three of us, with scissors and Exacto knives, 10 minutes just to open up these nesting doll-like treats and put them on a plate.

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I was thinking a lot about this whole packaging thing during the 27 minutes it took the two bakery clerks to wrap these mini cakes. I recalled that my disdain of over-packaging isn’t JF 5th grade poetry bk - 1new. Back in Grade 5 at Webster School I was in the “Advanced Reading Group” (clever name, and so thoughtful toward those unfortunate students in the “Primitive Reading Group” or “Just Plain Old Average Readers Who Won’t Amount to Much” or whatever they called the ones beneath me). Our teacher Mrs. Morgan had us create a book of poems called Poetry by Advanced Readers (obviously the clever title shows just how advanced we were), and my contribution was a poem called “Open It.” It went like this:

Open It
by Jeff Fessler, Grade 5

It makes me mad about the store,
The way they wrap things up,
I dig and tear and grip and bite,
to find just a coffee cup!

I use a hammer and an axe,
to open a cardboard box,
I chop and chop and chop again,
I would rather be an ox!

And in the end I use my teeth,
to open that pesky package,
But then my teeth turn out to be,
a great big pile of wreckage.

JF 5th grade poetry bk - 2

The original mimeographed page containing my masterwork.

Well, despite the fact that I tried to slip in a near rhyme rather than a real rhyme in that last stanza, I still made my point. Over-packaging is definitely a thing here. When you open a box of Cheerios you’ll find not one, but two impossible-to-open silver packets of cereal, because apparently after eating half of the contents I need to be reminded how much I hate over packaging. We recently went to a bakery and bought a baguette that the clerk slipped into a long skinny paper bag. I was having visions of strolling down a Paris avenue, baguette under my arm, beret cocked to one side on my head. Then the clerk took a plastic bag, slipped it over the open end where a few inches of the baguette was peaking out, and taped it on with enough scotch tape to make it waterproof. I looked like I was carrying a giant penis encased in a condom, something I could not envision carrying down Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

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Presenting something with two hands, as if you were giving it to Lady Mary on Downton Abbey. Source: http://www.visitourchina.com/blog/detail-162.html

I suppose, like every country we’ve visited/lived in, there are customs that we just have to embrace. And for the most part, I feel like we’ve done that. Here in China it’s polite to use two hands when giving someone something, like presenting cash to the checkout person. We always do that, and I like that one a lot because it turns a simple action into a fancy, polite one that makes me feel I’m on Downton Abbey. Years ago Jamey worked at a magazine shop in Palm Beach while he was in college. I happened to be visiting him there when a privileged sort of woman (with a fair amount of work done on her face), grabbed a water from the case and threw a dollar bill on the counter in Jamey’s direction. Before she exited the door he said, “You’re a quarter short,” and she took the coin from her baby eagle skin clutch and threw it—THREW IT—across the room toward his counter. Jamey just shook his head as he was numb from this sort of behavior. I, however, followed this skin-encased turd outside as she got her into her villain car and in less than 30 seconds reminded her how sailors talk.

There are other Chinese customs I’m finding it hard to embrace, such as drivers honking beep_beep_roadrunner_93their horns all the time for every little thing at all hours of the night. And I’m not talking about one of those quick taps on the horn where it makes a little squeak like the Roadrunner that says, “Hey my friend, just a casual reminder that the light turned green. By the way, I hope you’re having an awesome day!” No, it’s a full-on, trumpet blast/supertanker in the ocean honk that says, “MOVE!!! Can’t you see that the light turned green .0036 seconds ago!?!?! I’ve got to get to Carrefour so I can leisurely walk around blocking the aisles!!!”

It’s weird because the honking drivers are weirdly dead-faced and very still as they do this—no obscene hand gestures or screaming out of the window or brandishing a gun (with a few exceptions, private citizens in China are not allowed to have firearms). They just totally let the horn do the dirty work while they remain emotionally unattached to the situation. Even funnier is that it’s illegal to honk a car horn in Shanghai! But according to a recent study, car horns are used 40 times more often here than in Europe, so go figure.

There is a Chinese custom that I fully embrace, even though I find it challenging. The

Chinese children having a terrible argument.

Chinese children having a terrible argument.

Chinese don’t lose their temper, even in a very frustrating situation. They don’t yell at people. They don’t show anger. If anything they giggle when they are mad or embarrassed, like after running their shopping cart into my upper thigh at Carrefour. This is interesting because sometimes a normal Chinese conversation sounds like one of the arguments on the Real Housewives of Atlanta.

One day the bus drivers outside of school sounded like they were ready to rip each other’s throats out. Their voices were raised and they were talking over each other. It made me a little nervous. But then my Chinese colleague said they were just talking about gardening. I tried to imagine how this would sound in English:

BUS DRIVER 1: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “YOU SPACE THE SEEDS ABOUT 5 INCHES APART!!!”

BUS DRIVER 2: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “YOU’RE RIGHT!! AND COVER THEM WITH ABOUT A HALF-INCH OF LOOSE TOP SOIL!!!!

BUS DRIVER 1: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “THEN JUST LET MOTHER NATURE GO TO WORK, THOUGH I HEARD MIRACLE GRO HELPS!!!”

BUS DRIVER 2: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “OH WELL, ENOUGH GARDENING TALK!!! LET’S GO TO CARREFOUR AND BUMP INTO PEOPLE!!!!!

Happy shopping!

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

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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?”).

Slide1

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?

Hollister august 2012 - 79 – Version 2

Looking at cobalt blue and yellow in the landscape….

Source: http://www.mensluxuryandstyle.com

Or looking at it the runway. Source: http://www.mensluxuryandstyle.com

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).

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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: http://www.galleryhistoricalfigures.com

Gingers rock: Erik the Red founded the 1st Norse settlement in Greenland in 982. Image Source: http://www.galleryhistoricalfigures.com

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.

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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…”).

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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

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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?

Cairo

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.

Marrakesh

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?

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

french_unit

Who wears short shorts, we wear short shorts, if you dare wear short shorts, Nair for short shorts… Source: http://ricorant.blogspot.com

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.

dirt

 

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).

guards

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!”

chief

 

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

road

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…

bush