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-Asian tourists—only about 6,000 Westerners visit each year, and maybe only 500 or less 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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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



Source: (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.


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.


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


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.

IMG_8369 (1)

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


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:


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.


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.

2 hands

Presenting something with two hands, as if you were giving it to Lady Mary on Downton Abbey. Source:

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollister august 2012 - 79 – Version 2

Looking at cobalt blue and yellow in the landscape….


Or looking at it the runway. Source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop taking my picture crazy American boy.

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

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

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


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

JF & JY Graceland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hide of their national animal decorating the terminal.

The hide of their national animal decorating the terminal.

Our room with a view.

Our room with a view.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

african queen

Ms. Hepburn…why don’t you sweat?

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

africa screams

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

jungle cruise

A hungry, hungry hippo in lifelike plastic.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Colors

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



The People

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


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

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



The Expats

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

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


The Weather


Our road turns into the Jungle Cruise.

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


The Arts

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


House Calls

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


The Simplicity

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

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

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


The Adventure

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

Paris august 2012 - 066

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like pretty, but I like adventure more.


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


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

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

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

My tooth, sans roots.

My tooth, sans roots.

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

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

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

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

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

Why yes, yes there can.

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

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

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High tech data analysis tool photo:

High tech data analysis tool

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

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

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

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

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

Better pay, more respect than teaching. photo:

Better pay, more respect than teaching…order up!

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

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

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

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

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker? photo:

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker?

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

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

When Lessons are More than Just Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Andy Warhol in My Classroom

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

Half Pint's schoolhouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Studies is Actually A Thing

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

Live at "The Pharaoh's Court"

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

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

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

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

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

Science Too

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

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

 All the School’s a Stage

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


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

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

 Art Attack


Maimouna’s Basquita-inspired art

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

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

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

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

Professional Development

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

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Celebrate Good Times, C’mon!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Alice always makes it better. Source:

Alice always makes it better. Source:

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

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

Rosario lets Karen Walker have it.

Rosario lets Karen Walker have it.

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

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

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

Our maid in Peru, rockin' the big cuffs.

Our maid in Peru, rockin’ the big cuffs.

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

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

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

Human Video Game

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

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

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

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

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

My actual design completed, photographed by a secret drone.

My actual design completed, photographed by a secret drone.

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

The Greyson Bed

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

Make sure the gauze curtains are tied JUST LIKE THIS!

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

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

Merry Christmukah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our favorite Fati

Our favorite Fati

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

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

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

We fit right in.

We fit right in.

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

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

My favorite meal is the one someone else cooks.

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

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

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

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

The sock drawer.

The sock drawer.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Satan rode side saddle on my class ring.

Satan rode side saddle on my class ring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Taxi Driver 2 starring me Source:

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

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

Ancient Rome, when bathroom time became a spectator sport!

Ancient Rome, when bathroom time became a spectator sport!

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

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

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

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

Cue exotic chanty/whiny music. Photo:

Cue exotic chanty/whiny music.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Jump in my van and I’ll show you the town.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The driver guy veered into a shady,

Now, get out the van and DANCE! photo:

Now, get out the van and DANCE!

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Here, sign this!

Here, sign this!

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

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

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

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