About 2seetheglobe

Just a kooky guy looking for adventure across the globe, hoping to influence the next generation through my out-of-the-box teaching, and hoping to influence the current generation through my out-of-the-box shenanigans.

Chapter 40: Giving Directions While Bleeding: A Guide to My Medical Emergencies Across the Globe

At this very moment, Jamey and I were supposed to be sunning on the same beach in

Screen shot from the movie “Y Tu Mamá También”

Huatulco, Mexico where Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna frolicked in the movie “Y Tu Mamá También.” I was pretty sure that pristine environment would cause us to be just like them–young, tanned, and carefree (minus the shenanigans with an older woman).

I’ll admit that when we booked the trip a month or so earlier, the only health concern on our mind was how Montezuma’s Revenge might impact our beach time. Little did we know that a somewhat larger health concern would lead to a trip cancellation and, well, a cancellation of everything else except sitting on our couch watching marathons of Storage Wars or Beachfront Bargain Hunt (seriously, 3,000 channels and this is the best we can find??)

Global pandemics have a way of making you think about your health. Like every two seconds. As in, when I coughed a minute ago, was that just my iced tea going down the wrong pipe or was that a dry cough and should I start looking for the other two symptoms? Or, as in, don’t touch that letter in the mailbox—let me get the Lysol Wipe and rub it down first!

Me in very remote Kulusuk, Greenland, trying not to break my leg or get an appendicitis.

To be honest, having lived and worked and traveled in so many places around the globe, I always did have a worry in the very, very back of my mind about falling ill or getting injured far away from home. When we hiked a day into the remote hills of Thailand to stay with a tribe, or stayed in a tiny village on the desolate east coast of Greenland, or spent time on Easter Island–the most remote inhabited island on earth–what if we broke a leg or had an appendicitis? Fortunately, we escaped major medical emergencies abroad, even in our time living in Mali when there was an Ebola outbreak.

Pre-emergency, enjoying Ghent without bloodshed.

But there have been minor health-related incidents abroad, and they were harrowing enough. A few summers ago Jamey and I decided to take a breather and spend a month in the lovely medieval city of Ghent, Belgium. Just prior to the trip my U.S. doctor found a bit of skin cancer on the upper part of my left arm. Another doctor removed it and stitched me up. After two days at our Airbnb in Ghent, it was time to have the stitches removed. Since everything looked fine, Jamey snipped them away with a special pair of scissors. Easy peasy.

At bedtime I clicked off the light and reached down to put my iPad on the bedside table. That was when I heard a strange snapping sound. Since it was dark and Jamey was asleep, I made my way to the bathroom and flicked on the light. That’s when I saw that the surgery site had completely opened up, giving me a great view of the inner part of my upper arm. That’s a view I won’t forget.

Of course, here we were in an unfamiliar apartment in an unfamiliar town after midnight. I could only find paper towel to slap over my arm, while Jamey frantically combed through the binder of helpful information the apartment owner had left. Amazingly, he found a number for hospital with an emergency room that was open and where they spoke perfect English. The he found a number for a taxi service and ordered a cab. We dashed to the street in the shorts we were wearing earlier that day and awaited our driver.

But 30 minutes later the taxi hadn’t arrived, and we were shivering in the now really chilly night. It was past midnight and the only people on the street were drunk college students and tourists who thought I’d been shot. “That’s gangster!” one of them said to me as he passed by.

“Hey, do you know where the street is with all the prostitutes in the window?” another guy

Here’s the place you’re looking for, drunk tourists. Source: WikiCommons

asked me, apparently not put off by the blood running down my arm. At least not enough to keep him from asking a sex tourism-related question.

“Next block down, then turn left.” I answered. Bleeding wound or not, I am always great with directions.

Jamey ran back into the apartment (through a gate requiring a code, then a dark hallway, slow elevator to third floor, another dark hallway, and a door that was tricky to unlock) to find another taxi. At which time, of course, our original taxi pulls up as I stand bleeding and ask him to wait just a minute.

Soon we were off on our ride to the ER in our unmarked taxi that smelled like cigarette smoke with a young driver who most certainly was stoned or very tired (it was past 2:00 AM now). He didn’t say a word the whole time, and of course my mind raced with thoughts of him driving us to a construction site where he’d rob us and dump us in a vat of concrete, or delivering us to an underground clinic where they took our internal organs (I already had some of their work done for them).

After another 30 minutes or so the high/sleepy driver grunted and pointed. We were in a very dark residential area, but way off in the distance I could see an illuminated sign, and as we got closer I could see it was in fact the emergency room of a hospital. Once inside the man at reception spoke perfect English and checked me in, then led me to a nurse who also spoke perfect English and checked my vitals. He then led us to an exam room to await the doctor. Along the way we noticed a large group of police officers surrounding a young guy. As the nurse put us into the exam room, he said, “Just remember that what you see inside a hospital is private.” Had we just seen Justin Bieber in a Belgian hospital crisis? Or one of the Belgian king’s kids? We would never learn the truth….

ER waiting room selfie, looking surprisingly calm.

After a long wait, a young doctor came into our room, again speaking perfect English. I liked her—she was confident and to-the-point. She took a look at my arm and told me that the U.S. doctor should have used internal stitches as well as the external ones. She explained that she would staple the wound closed, that there would be an “ugly scar,” and that I should wait until we were back in Shanghai before having a doctor remove the staples. Fine, fine. I promised I would comply.

As I awaited the sharp sting of a needle to numb the area, I heard a loud CLICK, and saw that she was already stapling my wound closed. CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK. Six staples, no numbing first. I guess my shocked surprised acted as an anesthesia. She said she’d be right back and returned in a few minutes with directions for wound care written in both French and English.

While we checked out, I noticed the sky was getting light and the next day was almost here. The bill for an emergency room visit in the middle of the night with staples: a whopping $95 U.S. The receptionist said I didn’t need to pay right then—they would email a bill. (Note to self: Should have just paid then and there, as my bank’s transfer fee for sending the $95 was another $100). I followed the doctor’s instructions and had the staples removed by a doctor back in Shanghai. Which means my ordeal spanned three continents: original operation in North America, staples applied in Europe, staples removed in Asia. And FYI, I don’t think my scar is ugly at all.

I’ve had other non-hospital-related health situations while abroad. And though none of them spanned three continents, they were eventful.

Location: Belgrade, Serbia

Affliction: food poisoning

Likely cause: eating undercooked fish at a riverside cafe

Our Sarajevo B&B…haunted, or was it just the flu talking?

Note: Happened at 8:00 PM, then had to take a five-hour bus ride at 5:00 AM the next day on winding roads to Sarajevo as part of the tour we were on.

Note 2: It was there in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I may or may not have encountered a phantom child while in the midst of a feverish flu-based delirium. You can read more about this in my blog post “Chapter 23: Scary Monks, Food Poisoning Hallucinations, & Man-eating Alligators: My Inspirational Summer Vacation.”

 

The giant beers/medicine. Jamey drank them as a precautionary measure.

Location: Barcelona, Spain, New Year’s Eve

Affliction: flu

Likely cause: who knows

Note: This is where I learned that guzzling giant, dark beers works just like Tylenol.

 

 

Location: Thailand

Affliction: bacterial infection/diarrhea

Likely cause: swimming in the River Kwai (should have used the damn bridge)

The River Kwai is really just for looking at, not swimming in.

Note: This illness almost led to a car-poo for me and my similarly afflicted travel mate Ilean when our driver’s vehicle stalled in the middle of a busy six-lane highway while we were in the midst of this “stomach evacuation emergency.”

Note 2: A few hours later, after a bumpy speedboat ride to an island resort, I was sitting on the beach with my friends when the urgent need to visit a toilet became readily apparent (I’ll not share these details). As I dashed to my room through the lawn, I ran smack dab through a colony of fire ants. They were still clinging to my feet and legs, biting away with their painful stings, as I made it to the toilet just in time. The resulting bite blisters lasted longer than the diarrhea.

 

Location: Mali, West Africa

Affliction: malaria (twice)

Likely cause: An evil female Anopheles mosquito who somehow found a way around the bed netting

Note: Thank goodness a few pills cured this in three days, but only because I caught it in time.

 

Location: Peru

Affliction: food poisoning

Likely cause: Chicken foot soup? Guinea pig intestines? Fish head soup? Horse meat?

Note: I was an exchange student living in a host family’s home. In the middle of the night I awoke with horrible stomach pains and wandered downstairs to get a drink of water. I ended up sprawling on the tile floor of the office where it was cool and pitch black. Some time later my host parents entered the office, turned on the light, and screamed when they saw me, apparently thinking I was dead.

 

Location: North Korea

Affliction: flu

Likely cause: student in my class who was sick and should have stayed home

Note: Our tour guide allowed me to stay in the hotel room and skip an afternoon tour to

I can even smile when I have the flu and am standing on the North Korean side of the DMZ.

recover, but warned me, “DO NOT LEAVE THAT ROOM.” The hotel called my room three times in two hours to make sure I was there. The phone was in the bathroom, next to the toilet, so I had to get out of bed to answer each time.

Note 2: I took my temperature with a thermometer Jamey had bought in Shanghai that only measured in Celsius. Not being an expert in converting from Celsius to Fahrenheit, I mistakenly thought my temperature was 112 degrees so I got into a tub of cold water thinking I was going to experience spontaneous human combustion.

Note 3: Our tour guide’s “minder,” a former military guy whose job was to make sure she only said positive things about North Korea or he would send her to prison, bought me some medicine. See, even scary guys have a heart.

Note 4: To read more about the whole North Korean adventure, check out my blog post “Chapter 33: Flu Time in a Totalitarian Dictatorship, or Why I Came Home with Three Toblerone Chocolate Bars.”

 

Location: Belize, Central America

Affliction: poisonwood rash from head to toe which lasted for almost 2 weeks

Likely cause: hiking through the jungle in Belize in board shorts, on our way to inner tube down a river

Note: “Don’t wear long pants on this hike; you’ll get too hot” our eco resort owner told us.

So, as we shelter in place for the next how-many-ever-days in our cozy Mid-Century house in my little midwestern hometown, I’ll be thankful. It could be worse. I could be in a foreign country, standing on the street with blood running down my arm, giving directions to brothels to drunk college kids who think I was shot in a bank heist. Instead, I’m going to be eating Cheetos and catching a marathon of “Dr. Oakley: Yukon Vet.” Now how gangsta is that?

Chapter 39: Gucci Pillows & Mushroom Conditioner: Saying Goodbye to Shanghai

Great posture (thank you, straight pins!). Photo: WikipediaCommons,https-//www.flickr.com/ photos/13091127@N00/528023018China.jpg, Luo Shaoyang

Before Jamey and I moved to Shanghai in 2015, we faced a barrage of questions that Americans always seem to ask about China. For example: Isn’t that a communist country? Don’t they eat dog? Will you get to meet Jackie Chan? Do they eat soup with chopsticks?

Stay in lockstep! Video screenshot from news broadcast in China.

I pondered these questions as I had a recurring nightmare that I was marching in one of those massive Chinese military parades with the missiles and tanks and ten bazillion soldiers marching in lockstep. Except I couldn’t get the beat, and everyone was looking at me like a traitor. In reality, I could never be one of those soldiers, mostly because they wear this hat that would make my head look huuuuge. Plus, I discovered that Chinese soldiers stick straight pins in their collars pointing toward their neck as a means of keeping their head up. Ouch.

Look at the beautiful architecture of this 12th century water town of Fengjing! And Starbucks too! Photo: Jeff Fessler

Much to my relief, there was nothing scary awaiting us when we arrived in our new home of Shanghai, no military parades or missiles or dog wontons. To the contrary. There are a bazillion Starbucks (including the largest one in the whole world), flagship stores for Prada, Versace, and Valentino, Shanghai Disneyland, Pop Tarts ($8/box), and scores of fashionable young Chinese staring at iPhones and filling the hip cafes in the very hip Former French Concession where we live. And none of them have pins sticking from their collars because they already walk very upright and purposefully like models on a Gucci runway.

But even though Shanghai looks quite Western in many respects, their government doesn’t exactly operate like those in the West. But trying to explain the government of China is complicated. It’s been labeled many things: communist, socialist, authoritarian, corporatist, a democratic dictatorship, socialism with Chinese characteristics, Marxism adapted to Chinese circumstances, and a socialist market economy. I mean seriously, you need to take a poli-sci course just to explain it (which I did not, hence my reliance on Wikipedia).

Suffice to say the government here operates differently than those in the USA. I mean, one man basically runs the show like a dictator, and his cowering minions follow suit, no matter how outrageous his words or actions are. Then there’s China.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for President Xi Jinping to tweet either, though that would be fun (“Hippo-neck Trump threatens us with a trade war? Maybe windmills have fried his brain. Sad!”). There is a guy in Beijing who, as a hobby, tries to translate Trump’s tweets into Chinese, but is challenged by the bad grammar, spelling errors, and slang.  He translates

It looks just like Kim! Photo: Wikipedia Commons, https-//upload.wikimedia.org/ wikipedia/commons/4/43/ Ha_Ha_Toys%2C_Planet_Robot%2C_ Blue%2C_Main_Street_Toys_ Exclusive%2C_Front.jpg ,D J Shin

 

“Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer to “Chuck the Weeper.” Trump’s “Rigged and Disgusting Witch Hunt“ phrase becomes “Manipulated and nauseating political persecution.” Hard to believe his tweets can be even more incoherent than we find them ourselves.

Surprisingly, you don’t see much in the way of government intrusion here in Shanghai. There are lots of rumors, like how the government shuts down coal-burning factories when an important international event is held so that the abysmal air quality instantly improves. Or how they can seed clouds to make it snow on certain days. Or how they can slow down the Internet if they feel like it. Or how they’ve created an army of robots that look like the Kardashians, poised to take over the world. Well, that last one is not any rumor I actually heard, but you never know. Kim looks awfully animatronic.

Maybe they are laundry supplies, maybe they are dinner. Photo: Jeff Fessler

Actually, we live a fairly Western-style life here in Shanghai (“Western” as in European/American, not as in chaps/spurs, though I’m sure there are some late night clubs that offer that as well). There are Western grocery stores that sell most American products, from Nestles Chocolate Chips to Honey Nut Cheerios to Heinz Ketchup to, yes, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Pop Tarts. Even the local Chinese grocery stores sell Tide with Lavender, and L’Oreal Shampoo and conditioner for color treated hair (not that I need that, mind you—this is just for informational purposes).

The tricky part is that the labels on the Western products in the local stores are completely in Chinese, so it can be confusing for a struggling Chinese speaker like me. And when I say “struggling,” I mean a completely non-Chinese speaker who totally gave up on Rosetta Stone Chinese like five times now, and whose own 9-year-old students told him his Chinese sounds like an old grandma speaking.

Shampoo? Conditioner? Pasta sauce? It’s a mystery. Photo: Jeff Fessler

We do have an app on our phone that scans and translates Chinese characters, but the results aren’t always crystal clear. For example, I can never figure out which is the L’Oreal shampoo and which is the L’Oreal conditioner–hence the 12 bottles of L’Oreal shampoo in our cabinet that represent the 11 times we thought it was conditioner. So, we always scan the L’Oreal bottles for clues. But the last time we scanned the front label on the bottle, the translation read, “Mushrooms best feature.” Is L’Oreal making pasta sauce now? Do fungi miraculously repair split ends? Is portabello the latest hot scent?

And it’s not just conditioner that causes me problems. For a month I wondered why the clothes I was washing didn’t have that freshly laundered scent. Then, after a quick scan with the app, I discovered that the Purex lavender-scented liquid detergent I was using was, in fact, lavender-scented fabric softener. Nothing like wearing really soft, static-free, filthy clothes for four weeks. Other parts of the label translated to: “New Pretend,” “Clean Smoked,” and “Temple No Remain.” Always an adventure in Shanghai.

The shipping company has packed us up already, and our 36 boxes are on a ship headed to….

But, alas, this particular adventure is nearing the end and we will soon leave the $8 Pop Tarts and cloud seeding and Kardashian robot armies behind. Because we made the big decision to leave China at the end of this school year and move on to a new place!

No doubt this new locale will be as unusual and foreign to us as Mali or China, a location that will require some time for us to adjust to an interesting, novel culture we aren’t used to. Like in our previous travels, we do have concerns about this new post. The actual city where we will reside is a picturesque, safe place with lovely people that I’m sure will welcome us with open arms. But it lies within a country plagued by violence and a somewhat shaky government led by an unstable leader.

Yes, we are moving to America.

Photo: Public Domain

Jamey and I will soon be residents of a town that is 625 times smaller in population and 153 times smaller in land area than Shanghai. Quincy, Illinois is a town of 40,000 people covering 16 square miles (41 square kilometers) on the Mississippi River, smack dab in the heart of the Midwest. First inhabited by the Illiniwek tribe and officially named in 1825, its riverfront location made it a major trading hub in the 1800s, and once the state’s second largest city. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a senatorial debate in the downtown park, and it’s the birthplace of Academy Award-winning actress Mary Astor (the Maltese Falcon), and the fabulous, Emmy Award-nominated Jonathan Van Ness who currently stars in Netflix’s “Queer Eye” (he lived just three houses away from our new home, and I went to high school with his mom).

Quincy celebs Mary Astor & Jonathan Van Ness. Photos: Wikipedia Commons, public domain, https-//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File-Mary_Astor_Argentinean_Magazine_AD _2.jpghttps-//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File-Jonathan_Van_Ness,_2018-04

 

 

It’s always been a welcoming town, sheltering 6,000 Mormon refugees in 1838 who fled persecution in Missouri (Quincy had about 2,000 people at the time), sheltering members of the Pottawatomie tribe in 1838 as they were forcibly relocated by the U.S. government from Indiana to Kansas along the “Trail of Death,” and becoming a major stop on the Underground Railroad. There was also a huge influx of German immigrants fleeing revolutions and conflicts in Europe who found peace and quiet and good farmland in Quincy in the mid 1800s. Thanks to them, Quincy has a long history of breweries and a plethora of taverns. Nothing says “welcome” like a bar on every corner!

Despite the fuddy-duddy stereotype the Midwest sometimes evokes, Quincy actually has

Dr. Richard Eells of Quincy helped hundreds of enslaved people escape to Canada. His house in Quincy was a stop on the Underground Railroad and you can visit it today. Photo: Public domain

strong roots as a progressive city. The first immigrants came from New England and brought with them their progressive values, such as abolitionism and public education. That continued into modern times when, in 1975, Time magazine called Quincy “an educational mecca” as educators from around the country flocked to its schools to see cutting edge approaches to instruction.

But I’m not naïve; I realize that today’s Quincy may not be the same progressive burg it once was. For example, in the last presidential election here, 70.6 percent of the vote went to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (hint: When he hears the word “stormy” he’s not thinking about the weather). And despite the fact that Illinois is a blue state, Quincy sits within a very red county. While I’ve never been a member of any political party, I am frightened by the ones who shun science and think that gay conversation therapy is a thing. But this is where those bars on every corner can come in handy, because after a few cocktails I always think the president is Lady Gaga and then I feel great.

The 1890 Newcomb House on Maine Street, now the Quincy Museum. Photo: Wikipedia, Public Domain, https-//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_ F._Newcomb_House#/media/File-Quincy_1601_Maine

There are healthier distractions, though. Quincy is a town rich in the arts and culture. Named to Expedia’s list of America’s Most Artistic Towns in 2017 and 2018, it’s home to America’s very first arts council, a community theatre in its 82nd season, a symphony orchestra, opera company, museums, 1,000 acres of parks, and over 3,500 architecturally significant buildings contributing to four National Historic Register Districts. And there are a couple of gay bars!

Quincy is also my hometown.

My Grade 4 class at Webster School in Quincy. I’m in the front, 3rd from left.

Yep, and it’s a place where I haven’t lived since I was 18 years old. I’ll be teaching in the same school system where I learned to read, write, and love show tunes. Jamey will be teaching just across the river in Hannibal, MO, home of Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn.

I’ll be living in the same town where I spent Friday nights TP-ing homes, where I avoided paying admission to the drive-in theatre by hiding in a car trunk (while wearing trendy white painter’s pants, no less), and where I once saw a ghostlike apparition as I regularly explored haunted houses way before those TV shows like Paranormal Witness and Ghost Hunters were on TV. If I get famous, I’ll probably apply to be on Celebrity Ghost Stories. My story will certainly be better than those of Downtown Julie Brown or that dweeb Scott Baio.

Sure, it’s an unconventional path from South Florida to West Africa to China to the Heartland,

Our maid and friend, Fati (2nd from right) in Bamako, Mali.

where life might be more laid back. But at this point in my life, I’ve lived and worked (or gone to school) on five continents where I’ve tried my best to speak Spanish, German, French, Bambara, and Chinese just so I could find a toilet or tell a server that I’m allergic to garlic (often the garlic question wasn’t understood so the toilet question became much more urgent). I’ve taught in schools on three continents, and in one country I taught the prime minister’s son who came to parent conferences with armed soldiers.

At the Great Wall near Beijing, early in the morning without another single tourist around.

I’ve experienced life across the globe, from Ethiopia to Easter Island, from Uzbekistan to the UK, even having to add pages to my passport because it was too filled with entry stamps. I’ve seen 70 countries. I’ve hiked an ancient Incan trail for days to Machu Picchu in Peru, climbed inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Cairo, looked at the temples in Cambodia from a hot air balloon, sat with a tribal chief in a remote village in Mali, experienced the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle in Finland, stood on a smoking volcano in Nicaragua, floated down the river on a traditional Mekong Delta riverboat in Laos, spent the night with a hill tribe in Thailand, stood too close to wild baboons in Ethiopia, floated in a rowboat in an iceberg-filled bay in Greenland, had the flu in North Korea and food poisoning in Serbia, and even greeted King Wangchuck of Bhutan in a monastery. Jamey and I never needed a bucket list because we just ended up doing the things we would have listed anyway.

Hiking to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan.

Teaching abroad was the best decision we ever made. There was our first post in memorable Mali. Amazing music! A coup d’état! Fabulous culture! A war! Two new languages to learn! An Ebola outbreak! That experience made our next stop, Shanghai, seem tame. People would say, “Oh, the streets of Shanghai are so crazy with all of those motor scooters,” and I’d think about the streets of Bamako filled with cars, galloping horses, French army trucks, herds of longhorn steer, rickety taxis, vendors weaving through it all selling toilet paper or plastic bags of water, and, oh yes, scooters. But these scooter drivers carry huge sheets of plate glass or several live sheep or six tires. So “crazy” we’ve done, in all its various forms.

Following the ancient Silk Road route in Uzbekistan.

We got to teach with fascinating educators and kids from around the world who widened our world view more than we ever thought possible. We got to live an expat life in which a long weekend in Thailand or Tokyo is routine. I once asked my class here in Shanghai if anyone was traveling for spring break, and one American girl frowned and sighed, “Bali AGAIN.”

It’s been a grand adventure, and a rather lucrative one as well because as expats we didn’t have to pay U.S. taxes, and our schools covered all housing costs. So we actually saved money–even with all of the endless traveling we engaged in during our many, many school holidays (mid-autumn festival, National Day break, Thanksgiving, winter break, Chinese New Year, spring break, Tomb Sweeping Day, Dragon Boat Festival). In one particularly active 12-month period we managed to experience China, the Maldives, Singapore, Bhutan, North Korea, the U.S., Cuba, and Bali (Bali AGAIN?). But as much as we’ve savored this whirlwind life around the world, partying at foreign embassies, and having maids and drivers and gardeners, our priorities have changed.

We want nothing more now then to be closer to our families.

With our parents in our newly purchased home in Quincy. Photo: Jill Burgess

I know, I know. I’m talking like a sappy poster someone puts on Facebook (envision a present wrapped with silvery paper and a Tiffany-blue ribbon, nestled under a Christmas tree with a puppy sleeping next to it, and the words “Family is the gift that lasts forever” stretched across the top in a sympathetic font). But for Jamey and me, it’s not so sappy because, for a number of reasons, it’s becoming clear that this is the point in time where we can pitch in, lend a hand, and offer more support to our families than a quick weeklong visit once a year allows.

Our Quincy family: me, sister Amy, Jamey, sister Jill, nephew Nick, dad and mom. Photo: Jeff Fessler

When I was a teen, I watched the TV show “Big Blue Marble” and dreamed of seeing the unique corners of the world it showcased (“Meet Jess, a 15-year old boy from the Netherlands who wants to join the circus someday!”). But I never thought about how special my own little world was too. In this day and age when our own president is in marriage #3 (with mistresses on the side), having fun, active, normal parents married almost 60 years now is pretty unique too. Having them live five minutes away so I can drop in anytime to eat home baked treats–I mean so I can help them with chores—is a luxury beyond compare, as is building things with nephew Nick, laughing with my sisters until we almost wet ourselves, having a drink with my cousins (well facilitated by the “tavern on every corner” situation), or hopping a short flight to visit my in-laws on the idyllic farm out in the country or my brother in amazing Seattle (I could also say “my amazing brother in Seattle, but I was trying to go for parallelism in this sentence).

Our midcentury beauty, waiting for our arrival. Photo: Jeff Fessler

All of these experiences will be novel for us, and we look forward to this new life, nestled in our midcentury home full of art from our travels. Also novel will be a working Internet that doesn’t cause me to curse like a sailor, blue skies, and not needing a face mask with charcoal filters in order to protect my lungs from inhaling toxic chemicals. I certainly won’t miss the elderly woman in the apartment above who apparently begins clogging practice at five sharp every morning.

Photo: Jeff Fessler

Granted we won’t be a couple of blocks away from the Gucci flagship store like we are here in Shanghai, where we can conveniently pick up a 17” x 17” needlepoint pillow with teddy bear motif for $1,250. However, we’ll be minutes away from the Maid-Rite, a restaurant featured on Alton Brown’s show on the Travel Channel, where for around $3.00 we can buy the best loose meat sandwich in the universe (and I would much rather buy 417 Maid-Rite sandwiches than a single Gucci pillow, just not all at once).

Along with oxygen and water, travel will still be an essential part of our lives as it has always been. After all, we have 120-ish countries we haven’t yet visited, and a few states too (although Idaho is a tough sell for us). And just in case anyone has lingering questions about our big move, I’ve pre-answered them for your convenience:

Q: Will you be living next to a cornfield?

A: While I did live next to a corn field/cabbage field growing up, our new neighborhood is bordered by the very fancy, 100-year old Quincy Country Club and its well-maintained golf course. No farm equipment in sight.

Q: Will you be drinking Budweiser in the back of a pickup truck while watching monster car races?

A: If I’m in the back of a pickup truck, it’s because I’ve just bought a vintage midcentury Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich and I had it delivered, along with two cases of Whitley Neill Blood Orange gin.

Q: Will you feel isolated being in the middle of nowhere?

A: I can take a $50 flight from the Quincy airport to Chicago in less than an hour. I can drive to St. Louis in two hours. I can build a raft like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and float down the Mississippi River to escape Aunt Polly who is whacking me on the head with a thimble and forcing me to abandon my high-spirited ways.

Q: Won’t you go insane with the antics of the current administration at your doorstep?

A: We currently live in a communist (ish) country, previously lived in a country where the government was taken over by drunk junior officers of the army, and have visited countries run by dictators and madmen. We have learned how to manage. Plus, there is a tavern on every corner.

Chapter 38: Traveling While Gay: Vigilante Squads, Unnatural Carnal Knowledge, and Plenty of Piña Coladas

At the airport in Malaysia, waiting to board our flight/escape unharmed

We were walking zombies when we arrived near midnight at the Sama Sama Express Hotel inside the Kuala Lampur, Malaysia airport. We were on our way to Vietnam, and we’d been traveling for more than 24 hours on three different planes that literally took us halfway around the world (in economy, no less). Now we had an 11-hour layover here until our next flight, and the only thing on our agenda was a steaming hot shower and sleeping while lying flat.

Thankfully we didn’t have to be coherent to check in at the hotel since we had booked and paid online a month before. And since it was located inside the airport, all we had to do was mosey over about two minutes from our arriving flight to the hotel’s front desk and flash our passports. Easy-peasy.

There were two young women at the front desk. One of them read from her computer, reviewing our reservation aloud: one night, standard room, checkout at noon, breakfast included. Then she abruptly stopped talking, looked at us, back at the computer screen with squinted eyes, then back at us.

“It says king bed,” she announced.

“Yes,” I answered. “Also, we’ll check out before ten since we have to make a flight.”

She looked at the other clerk with alarm. I wondered, were they upset we were leaving earlier than the established checkout time? Whatever—we just wanted to sleep.

Once in our hotel room, Jamey wondered if it was the king bed that had distressed them. After all, we were two males, and Malaysia was a Muslim country. While I usually looked into the LGBT situation in countries before we visited, Malaysia was just a layover and I had skipped the research. So I did a quick online search where we discovered that the front desk clerks’ discomfort was the least of our worries:

Malaysia:

  • 20 years imprisonment, fines, and caning for same sex sexual activity.
  • Vigilante groups round up men accused of being gay and had them arrested.
  • Government officials deport any visiting foreign cabinet ministers or diplomats who are gay.
  • The People’s Anti-Homosexual Voluntary Movement lobbies for stricter criminal laws against homosexuality.

Then there was this fun tidbit:

  • The Malaysian Film Censorship Board announced it would only allow depiction of homosexual characters in movies as long as the characters “repent” or die.

Apparently in 2017 Malaysia tried to censor Disney’s Beauty and the Beast over some “gay moments.” I totally have to get a copy of that version.

Now, I’ve had some sleepless nights in hotels in the past for a variety of reasons–an air conditioner in Belize that chilled the room to meat locker temperatures, a room in Cairo without AC or a window or a fan or apparently oxygen—but this was a whole new ballgame. Would these clerks turn us in to the People’s Anti-Homosexual Voluntary Movement? Would we be caned in the airport food court, right in front of Starbucks? Would we be featured in the next season of Locked Up Abroad? We even pulled out the convertible couch and made it look slept in—just in case the vigilante squad showed up.

The next morning we checked out earlier than we had originally planned, did not make eye contact with the clerks, and loudly talked about football stats as we sped through the lobby. We finally stopped sweating when those airplane wheels left that Malaysian runway. See ya’ later, haters!

Jamey and me at the 1993 March on Washington for LGBT rights

The whole anti-gay thing has never made sense to us, and the fact that most of this bias is based in religion (you know, that institution that’s supposed to make humans better people?) makes it all the more bizarre. I’ve fought hard over the years to combat this discrimination—marching on Washington, volunteering for human rights organizations, speaking before city councils, writing a monthly article in a local alternative newspaper, picketing and boycotting anti-gay organizations, and writing an email nearly every week to a person or company who debases people because of their sexual orientation. But, c’mon! When I go on vacation, I don’t want to think about an anti-gay vigilante squad ready to bust down our hotel room door. Unless they are going to take us to see that steamy version of Beauty and the Beast…I’d be totally down for that.

In our travels around the world, we’ve mostly avoided these awkward get-put-in-the-slammer-because-of-how-we-were-born situations because, as a rule of thumb, we avoid countries that might maim or kill us. For example, there are ten charming countries that impose the death penalty for being gay (Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen) that will probably not be the spot for our next spring break hullabaloo.

Uganda was almost on that list. Home of the infamous 2013 “Kill the Gays” bill, they originally called for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” Now I have met some very aggravating homosexuals in my lifetime, but to be clear, I never wanted to kill them. The punishment was later downgraded to life in prison (Whew! Thank goodness for small favors!) after most of the world threatened to withdraw all of their financial support from the country. Nope, I have little desire to explore a country where violent and brutal attacks against LGBT people are common and cheered on by political and religious leaders (and often performed by state officials). Nothing ruins a holiday more than a beating overseen by a Ugandan pastor.

Unfortunately, over the years we have slipped up and took trips to places that we really

The streets of Accra, Ghana. Wonder where he went to med school?

shouldn’t have. A few years back we tagged along with some friends on a driving trip around Ghana (For the sordid details, see my blog’s Chapter 15: Cause Every Little Thing is Ghana Be Alright). We didn’t research the country since our friends had made all of the plans. However, we had an inkling something was up when we saw that the windows of many Ghanaian cars were adorned with large adhesive letters that said things like, “I am covered in the blood of Jesus.” The drivers must have toweled off because, overall, they looked fine to me.

On the beach in Ghana, smiling even though they want to use those oars to beat the gay out of me.

For the first couple of nights we stayed at a rundown beachside hotel that gave new meaning to “seedy.” It was the kind of place that returned your laundry nicely folded, but still unwashed (yep, really happened). There was no Wi-Fi so we couldn’t research how Ghana felt about LGBT people. At one point I asked the front desk clerk if I could change some money, and as she was giving me my Ghanaian cedi she looked straight at me and said, “So you’re American. I don’t like that Obama. He legalized homosexuality.”

I wasn’t exactly sure how to reply. Maybe she was setting me up? Maybe she was just mean? Or covered in the blood of Jesus? So, I fake-smiled, took my wad of cedi, and racewalked out of there. Once we made it to the first place with Wi-Fi, I discovered these fun facts about Ghana–the country we would be traversing for the next eight days:

 Ghana:

  • three years imprisonment for “unnatural carnal knowledge” (e.g. code speak for being gay)
  • physical and violent homophobic attacks against LGBT people are common, and often encouraged by the media, as well as religious and political leaders
  • reports of young gay people being kicked out of their homes are also common
  • reports of torture programs designed to “cure” homosexuality

Rest assured I did not hum a single show tune or discuss any episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta for the next week and henceforth did not get the gay tortured out of me.

Ethiopia. We’re just close friends, I swear!

We inadvertently visited other African countries where the laws don’t favor us, either because we tagged along with others, attended a conference, or just missed the info in our research. I mean, it’s not exactly publicized by their travel and tourism bureaus. “Visit Egypt! See the pyramids! Float down the Nile! And if you’re gay, crush rocks in a hard labor camp for 17 years!” Here are a few of the countries we naively visited:

Egypt: Homosexuality is not specifically outlawed, but “morality laws” are used to punish gay people–up to 17 years in prison with or without hard labor & fines.

Ethiopia: Up to 15 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.

Morocco: Up to 3 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.

Senegal: Up to 5 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.

Tunisia: Up to 3 years imprisonment and fines for male same sex sexual activity.

Sometimes it didn’t even cross my mind that a country would be anti-gay. Take Bhutan, for

Trekking to Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest monastery) in Bhutan, where we could have gone to prison for a year for making whoopie in the hotel room.

example, known worldwide as the first country with a Gross National Happiness index built right into their constitution. Everything the government does is supposedly weighed against this index, which includes a guarantee of psychological well-being. And yet:

Bhutan: Between 1 month and 1 year imprisonment for same-sex sexual acts

Well, listen here King Wangchuck (really his name) of Bhutan. If I’m a gay Bhutanese fellow, I’m not experiencing much of that Gross National Happiness you advertise. This hurts even more because King Wangchuck is young and handsome (seriously, clink on the link–he’s model-like) and is pals with Will and Kate. Surely he watches Will & Grace?

Another big travel blunder we made was when we visited the Maldives, that exotic string of islands in the Indian Ocean. We didn’t even think to check on the LGBT situation before we traveled there, mesmerized as we were by those over-the-sea bungalows we’d seen on screen savers and travel posters.

It was a painfully expensive adventure, but we sucked it up because, hey, those over-the-sea bungalows! And yes, it was dreamlike stepping off our veranda right into the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and having a cabin boy decorate our bed each day with little pictures made of flower petals. Good thing he didn’t create a picture of the Maldives Penal Code which would have shown us this:

Maldives: Up to 8 years imprisonment with possibility of whippings, house arrest, or deportation for same sex sexual acts or…gay marriage!

I discovered this fun fact while lounging on the veranda of our Maldivian over-the-sea bungalow, sipping a tropical drink, and doing a search on my iPad. And let me just say, there weren’t enough piña coladas in the world to make us forget that we could be languishing in a Maldivian prison just because one day back in 2012 we drove to Iowa (one of six U.S. states at the time that allowed same-sex marriage) to get legally hitched after being together for 26 years.

Maldives. Can you please wait until after breakfast to whip us?

It’s one thing to feel disappointed when your vacay doesn’t turn out exactly as you planned—maybe it rained, or the hotel room had a mildew smell, or the hotel restaurant had stale bread. But imagine being on vacation and filled with dread just for being, well, yourself (while paying a whole hell of a lot of money for that privilege). Next time we want an over-the-water bungalow experience without the fear of a gay whipping, we’ll pass on the Maldives and head to places like Fiji, Cambodia, and the Philippines that won’t throw us in the clinker for being lawfully wedded.

We really began to understand the hateful side of the world when we decided to become international teachers, and began our search for schools. One of our first offers came from a school in Seoul, Korea where we really hit it off with the principal after several Skype interviews. He said we would be perfect for his school, and the last step was for him to get the final okay from the school owner. But a day later he informed us that he didn’t even make it inside the guy’s office—the secretary out front had stopped him dead in his tracks when he explained that we were a gay couple.

“You can’t tell him that!” she exclaimed. “That’s not allowed at our school!”

The principal asked, “What’s not allowed?”

“You know,” she answered. Then she mouthed the word “gay.”

You pretty much know when a school secretary can’t even voice the word “gay,” we weren’t going to be sashaying down the halls of that institution anytime soon.

It only got worse. As we started to look at schools with available positions, many were either in countries where gay people definitely would not be welcomed (hello Saudi Arabia!) or were religious-based schools where they probably mouthed the word “gay.”

To keep track, I ended up making a color coded chart that included every school (Green = gay friendly! Red = We will imprison/torture/kill you!). We discovered that nearly one third of international schools were off-limits to us.

Thankfully, both of the international schools where we ended up teaching were extremely gay-friendly and actually, just friendly in general. Our school in Shanghai even hung a banner across the front of the building announcing their support for LGBT people—it was signed by all administrators and loads of students. Both schools were also located in countries that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal in China since 1997. In Mali, no laws against same-sex sexual activity have ever existed in the country.

Throughout our job searches and vacation searches, I can’t tell you how many times we heard someone say:

 “C’mon, it’s safe for gay guys in _________! (insert name of obviously anti-gay country) They might have those laws on the books, but they hardly ever enforce them!”

In other words, “You PROBABLY won’t be stoned or imprisoned, so just enjoy your piña colada!”

Sorry, not worth the risk. There are just too many countries in the world that welcome me for who I am, where I don’t have to worry about the repercussions of bizarrely inhumane religious laws, or antiquated British colonial laws that treat same-sex relations as a punishable offense. If I want to spend a gazillion dollars a night for an over-the-water bungalow, I’ll do it in a country that appreciates and maybe celebrates my keen sense of fashion, knowledge of Bravo shows, and witty repartee.

Sadly, our own home country isn’t a bastion of gay friendliness either. Up until 2003, same sex relations were illegal in the United States (let’s just say I was a repeat offender from way back in the day). You know things are bad when communist China legalizes same sex sexual activity six years before the U.S. And to this day, it is still legal in America to fire an employee for being gay in these 28 states:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

It’s all pretty alarming to me, especially when I just read some research that shows that unequal treatment of LGBT people causes economic harm, leading to lower economic output for individuals, businesses, and even entire countries. On the other side, inclusive policies can actually boost a country’s GDP. Surely that news would spur countries to change, right?

Nope. Just over the last year or so, countries have become even more anti-gay. Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Brunei implemented new laws that increase penalties not just for being gay, but also for simply supporting rights for LGBT people. We’ve still got a lot of work to do in this world.

Which means, it’s definitely time for a piña colada. Or the whole pitcher. Oh, what the hell, just give me the bottle of rum.

Chapter 37: When Fries Attack – Around the World with a Garlic Allergy

Seasoned fries were the culprit.

Would you like stomach cramps with that?

I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and at 130 pounds soaking wet, wasn’t exactly counting calories. So when I ate lunch at J.J. Muggs, a burger place conveniently located across the street from the design firm where I worked, I always ordered crispy, golden, fried potatoes with my meal, because, well, who wouldn’t?

But minutes after returning back to the office, I would break out in a sweat, turn pale, experience stabbing abdominal cramps, then run like hell to the bathroom. That was when I learned that the term “explosive diarrhea” was a thing.

After a few doctor visits and some cuisine-based detective work, I discovered that the fries at J.J. Muggs were in fact “seasoned” fries, sprinkled liberally with garlic powder and garlic salt and bits of chopped garlic and probably fried in pans made of garlic bulbs.

And I discovered that I was allergic to garlic.

Technically, according to my doctor, I didn’t have a garlic “allergy.” I had a garlic “intolerance,” meaning I didn’t have an immune system response but experienced, in his words, “unpleasant symptoms.” I felt the aforementioned “explosive diarrhea” fell into this category fairly well.

bulbs of horror

I wasn’t devastated at the thought of never eating garlic again. Growing up, garlic was not a staple of my Midwestern diet of hearty casseroles, pork chops, potatoes, fried chicken, and sweet corn. Oh, and Maid-Rites! This is a loose meat sandwich type of thing, and it is heaven on a bun. Seriously, I would choose this as my last meal if I ever was going before a firing squad. And Maid-Rites definitely do not include garlic.

Also, the smell of garlic is horrifying to me, especially when it emanates from someone’s mouth or pores the day after they ate it. Some mornings I get on the bus to go to school, and the entire interior reeks because someone ate garlic shrimp the night before. Might as well drape the rotting carcass of a dead cat around your neck or bathe in spoiled milk mixed with rotten eggs, because it’s all just horribly stinky to me.

And is it really worth it to smell like the kitchen vent of an Italian restaurant just so you can eat one stupid herb? The Gardening Channel lists 94 other herbs one can cook with. Why use garlic when you can use herbs with names such as Dittany of Crete, epazote, horehound, or Johnny Jump Up? Those would make you a much more interesting person in the long run, and infinitely less smelly.

To me, garlic is aggressive and negatively overwhelms anything it comes in contact with, sort of like the Donald Trump of cuisine. I bet you could coat a kitchen sponge with tomato sauce and garlic and tell someone it was lasagna, and they wouldn’t even notice the difference. Some chefs say garlic desensitizes your tongue to more delicate flavors. Probably true, because I’ve notice that it’s used heavily in low calorie dishes because all the actual good tasting stuff (e.g. butter) is absent and garlic masks the blandness. It’s also used a lot in vegetarian dishes because, well, a carrot or quinoa is never going to knock your socks off on its own.

When I tell someone of my garlic intolerance, inevitably I get the reaction, “Oh, I love garlic!” Well that makes me feel just dandy. It’s like if someone tells you they’re blind, and you respond, “Oh, I love seeing!”

Breaking news: I don’t actually care at all that you enjoy eating the bulb that causes my colon

Thar she blows!

to explode like Mount Vesuvius. Wouldn’t it be super if, after I explain my predicament to someone, they simply gave me an understanding nod and realized that their herbal preference turns my insides into a war zone? I mean, if someone tells me they go into anaphylactic shock when they eat nuts I just say, “I’m sorry” and don’t share that I love peanut butter so much that I want to rub it all over my face.

Sometimes people will react with, “But garlic is good for you! They sell garlic tablets at the health food store!” Aside from the fact that it’s not certain whether garlic is effective in treating any medical condition, and the medicinal use of garlic has not been approved by the FDA, just remember that health food stores also sell $9 bottles of Coconut Charcoal SuperAde juice. Yep, that’s right, a juice full of black, activated charcoal. It’s good for you, really. No matter how black your teeth turn.

A cauldron of Uzbek food, and not a clove of garlic in sight.

On the down side, a garlic intolerance can make the whole restaurant experience a tad frustrating. First I scan the menu to make my first choice, but I also have four to six other options on standby in case garlic is used in anything. Then I carefully explain to the server my situation. Because I’ve traveled around the world and lived on five continents, I’ve learned to recite “I’m allergic to garlic” in many languages, including last year when I learned to say it in Uzbek for our trip to Uzbekistan (“Men sarimsoqqa allergiyam!”).

It definitely sounds the best in French: Je suis allergique à l’ail (juh-swee al-ur-zheek uh-LIE). It’s almost like I’m reciting a poem or saying the name of a new Givenchy perfume. Sometimes I just go to a French restaurant so I can say that over and over.

And now we live in China where 80% of the world’s garlic is produced (I know, I know, the irony of it all). “I am allergic to garlic” in Chinese looks like this: 我对大蒜过敏. Disturbingly enough, that middle character looks a little like me in the bathroom after eating garlic.

Pronouncing that Chinese phrase sounds something like this: whoa dway dhas-sue-on gwoe-mean, except no matter how many times I try to say it JUST like the woman’s voice on Google translate, the servers just stare at me blankly. I’m sure I don’t say the tones correctly, which can completely alter the meaning. Maybe I’ve turned a simple dietary restriction statement into an insult about their hair style or mother or something. That’s why I have it written in Chinese in my phone, and I just show them after a few speaking attempts.

After I explain to the server my garlic predicament—in whatever language–I usually encounter one of four responses:

(1) “Is that a real thing? I’ve never even heard of that.” I want to reply that there are probably many things they’ve never heard of, such as how the size of their tip is diminishing with each stupid thing they say. To get them to understand the significance of this, I always describe my affliction as an “allergy” since that sounds more serious. I also tell them that I will die if I eat it, right after my head explodes. That usually gets them to take me more seriously as well.

(2) “Can you have just a little bit of garlic?”  To which I want to answer, “Sure, then I’ll only have a little bit of explosive diarrhea in your bathroom later.” Seriously, it’s like asking me, “Can you drink just a little bit of antifreeze?” or “Is swallowing just half a razorblade okay?” An expat server in Shanghai explained that it’s possible there could be just a bit of garlic in the pan from a previous entrée. Did I really have to explain that dish washing detergents had been invented in Germany during WWI?

(3) “Well, you can always order off of the dessert menu, that’s safe! Ha ha!” And if this was true, maybe I would eat only desserts for the rest of my life and turn into Jabba the Hutt’s twin with scurvy. Unfortunately, some evil wizards devised a way to incorporate garlic into desserts too! Introducing Black Garlic Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Sauce with 3 teaspoons (15 mL) of black garlic. Or Roasted Garlic Ice Cream with 1 entire head of garlic. Or Garlic Brittle Cookies with eight to ten garlic cloves. The introduction to that recipe says, “Garlic is a mysterious flavor, and its sweet bite is a perfect complement to chocolate.  We bet no one will be able to guess the secret flavor in these cookies!” Garlic is mysterious? You can’t be mysterious when your odor can be detected from deep space. It’s like pouring gas or Chanel No. 5 into a Fiji water bottle and betting no one will detect the “secret” flavor.

 (4) “Why would you come to a __________ (Italian, Middle Eastern, Korean, etc.) restaurant? There’s garlic in everything.” First, it’s always delightful to have a server question your dining choices—it really sets the mood for the night. Second, with few exceptions I don’t have a problem finding something safe on the menu at any restaurant, from Chicago to Shanghai. Of course this didn’t hold true at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant I visited last summer, where the manager informed me that literally EVERYTHING on their menu had garlic in it, including the burgers, wraps, and the damn salads!

Garlic hatred aside, I am not eating at a restaurant where some numbskull chef doesn’t have enough culinary creativity to come up with at least two herb options. Geez, go back to 7th grade home economics class. To accommodate me, they pan fried a plain chicken breast and plopped it on a bun with a single lettuce leaf and a not-so-ripe tomato slice. Corrugated cardboard never tasted so good.

I’ll have the pasta. Hold the bad breath.
Image: Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

Fortunately, most restaurants aren’t so garlic forward, even Italian restaurants. Contrary to popular belief, garlic is not a staple of every single Italian region, as a server in Florida once tried to tell me. I’m sure the closest he had been to Italy was the Italian Pavilion at EPCOT Center.

For the uninformed, garlic is a staple in the SOUTH of Italy (Google it). Many classic Italian dishes like fettuccine Alfredo, invented in 1892 by Alfredo di Lelio in Rome, never included garlic. Did you hear that, Olive Garden? Just because you chuck a clove or three into your fettuccine Alfredo (and every other defrosted dish you serve) doesn’t make it right. In fact, many northern Italians (like our Italian exchange student many years ago) view those who eat and smell of garlic as second class or unsophisticated.

So there you have it. I may not be able to dive into a bowl of roasted garlic soup with garlic croutons served in tiny hollowed out garlic bulbs. But I’ll never be mistaken as second class or unsophisticated. Not even at the Olive Garden.

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

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

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

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

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

kinopoisk.ru

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

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

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

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

17375177041_826727941c_o

In Peru, when I finally learned to avoid crowds.

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

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

pyramid

I owe my presence here to Cincinnati.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cape-verde-dec-2013---041_17581535999_o

Feeling great in Senegal (before the airport incident).

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

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

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

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

download

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

uzbek

Uzbekistan, without a line cutter in sight.

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

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

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

Convict_Chain_Gang

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

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

 

 

Chapter 35: Hear No Evil, Smell No Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy…I can’t smell any B.O. up here.

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

No burning suitcase smell up here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold your nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong. Just a quiet, little afternoon stroll.

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

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

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

Experiencing the exotic flora of Bhutan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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