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.

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Taxi Driver 2 starring me Source: http://ourtour.co.uk

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

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

Ancient Rome, when bathroom time became a spectator sport!

Ancient Rome, when bathroom time became a spectator sport!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stupid

photo: oddee.com

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

The driver guy veered into a shady,

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

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

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

jail

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

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

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

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

robot

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

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

Here, sign this!

Here, sign this!

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: blog.strayboots.com

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

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

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

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

Finally in Cambodia with our organs intact.

Finally in Cambodia with our organs intact.

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

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

Where is my damn Icelandic pony?

Where is my damn Icelandic pony?

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

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

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

Taped & Ready for Departure

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

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

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

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

Hotel Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shake, Rattle, and Roll, in the Bad Way

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

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

Scalp Afire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I think she’s shouting a curse word….

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

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

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

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

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

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I think I see Brad in the upstairs window….

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

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

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My new shoes, better than papal history.

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

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

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

Brad Pitt may have touched this bottle.

Brad Pitt may have touched this bottle.

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

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

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

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

Wanna fight?

Wanna fight?

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

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

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

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

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

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Provence, je t’aime….

Bamako, n'b'i fè.

Bamako, n’b’i fè.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapped in a Tomb

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

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

iPhones and Thermal Baths

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

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Pool #4, minty-flavored

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

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

Bike Riding and Food Poisoning Along the Danube

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

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On our way to the Botulism Cafe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Paparazzi!

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

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

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

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

Red Eyes at Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 21: Star Spangled Banter: How Grits, a Bidet, and a Tea Wench Helped Me Understand America & the World

Last year, just a few weeks before we left our old stomping grounds in Florida to begin a new life in Mali, we decided to pay a final visit to the West Palm Beach GreenMarket (yep, all one word, capital M…very fancy).

Fancy GreenMarket in West Palm Beach, Florida (Photo from Palm Beach Post)

Fancy GreenMarket in West Palm Beach, Florida (Photo from Palm Beach Post)

Unlike the outdoor markets we now frequent here in West Africa, the fancy GreenMarket is a tad different. It has no sheep heads, no ladies carrying gigantic baskets of bras or yams on their head, and requires about a week’s salary if you want to buy a slice of carrot cake. Seriously, for what I spent on a cup of Bob’s Fresh Squeezed Lemonade at the GreenMarket, I could buy a donkey cart full of lemons at our outdoor market in Bamako. And that would include the donkey.

loose leaf tea

photo from tealeafreview.com

But overpriced, hand-squeezed citrus beverages aside, we did enjoy strolling around the Greenmarket every week, gazing at the scenery, meeting friends, and taking out loans to buy slices of carrot cake. On this particular farewell visit we popped into a booth selling loose leaf tea, mostly because they had free samples of iced tea and we were thirsty. As we looked among the many exotic tea flavors (mango-mint-papaya, or black pepper-Listerine-garlic-hairspray, etc.) the fifty-something proprietor lady drifted over and began the hard sell. You know, the old “If you buy 4 packs you get the fifth for half price and that’s the best price you’ll ever pay for tea of this quality that’s handpicked by toddlers with each leaf individually hand-knotted blah blah blah” kind of stuff.

But this time we had a good excuse not to spend $47 on a bag of dried leaves that makes about 5 cups of mediocre tea. We explained that we were moving to Africa in a couple of weeks and couldn’t fit one more thing in our luggage—not even one, single, solitary, hand-knotted tealeaf.

“Africa? Why would you move there?” the tea wench blurted out.

“We have jobs teaching at an international school,” I answered.

“Ahhhh, so you’re doing it for the money. It figures,” she said.

"What am I going to do with all of my millions?" said no teacher ever.

“What am I going to do with all of my millions?” said no teacher ever.

I paused in stunned silence, only coming to my senses after gulping another shot of free iced tea. The money? Did she really just equate teaching with money? Because everyone knows that Donald Trump and Bill Gates made their gazillions by teaching, right? Because when I planned my future goals I said to myself, “Self, you’re going to make your first million by 30 in the highly lucrative and cut-throat world of elementary school teaching.” Because every teacher is so flush with cash that we use it to stuff our mattresses or store it in secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands—right next to Mitt Romney’s vault.

“Um, I will say money wasn’t a huge factor in our decision,” I replied, biting my lip. “We are going for the adventure and because we love learning about other cultures.”

“Well, I’m sorry but I love A-MARE-EE-CUH,” she responded. She heavily accented each syllable in “America” for added effect.

Huh? Was this tea hag now implying that we were unpatriotic because we were moving abroad? For pete’s sake I was nearly born on the 4th of July and I once owned Old Glory-themed boxer shorts.boxers I was so flabbergasted I actually couldn’t think of a witty retort (I really, really hate when that happens). So I just walked away–with a last cup of free iced tea, mind you. We rich folks still like our free samples.

Of course 20 minutes later as we ate supper nearby, I thought of dozens of great comebacks. And was I ever ready to return and give her piece of my mind. But Jamey, wisely, prevented me from doing so because I’m pretty sure tea leaves would have been flying.

It's "offical." Tea Party members lack 3rd grade spelling skills.

It’s “offical.” Tea Party members lack 3rd grade spelling skills.

We decided it would be a waste of time though, because more than likely she was (ironically) a Tea Party freak who loves America/guns/telling people how superior her religion is, and hates anybody not possessing her pale skin, her heterosexuality, and the English language. Plus she had really bad hair and a cloying aroma of drugstore perfume that had irritated my nasal passages.

This got me to thinking, though. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s never left the U.S., and that her idea of a cultural experience is a trip to Disney’s EPCOT Center where she can have breakfast in Norway, lunch in China, and supper in Mexico–all in the same day. She probably couldn’t point out Mali on a map, or Africa for that matter. Wouldn’t even want to. I mean how can someone understand the world

Dining under the stars, well, I mean the plaster ceiling and twinkle lights, at EPCOT's Mexican restaurant.

Dining under the stars, well, I mean the plaster ceiling and twinkle lights, at EPCOT’s Mexican restaurant. (photo : attractionsmagazine.com

we live in when the only non-American she’s probably ever met is the cashier at the Chinese take-out place where she gorges on crab Rangoon?

I’m lucky that from an early age, I learned the world didn’t end at our city limits. My parents bravely took my siblings and I on driving trips across the country where I learned about people I’d never encountered before (cowboys, American Indians, southerners, surfers), food I’d never before eaten (grits, trout, oranges right off the tree), and things I’d never experienced in the Midwest (rodeos, chameleons, mountains). I also learned what

My family on our trip to the western U.S., stopping roadside for an ice cold Shasta orange soda in the cooler.

My family on our trip to the western U.S., stopping roadside for an ice cold Shasta orange soda in the cooler.

those quarter machines in the men’s bathroom were for, but that’s a different story.

I am sincerely grateful that my folks cautioned us not to demean things just because they were different from what we were used to. That’s an important lesson to learn if you are a Midwestern kid whose idea of exotic food is a Chef Boyardee homemade pizza with canned mushrooms and Velveeta cheese.

Kiss my grots.

Kiss my grits.

On a family trip to Florida I distinctly remember putting a heaping teaspoon of grits in my mouth for the first time at some roadside diner, and feeling like I was eating the stuff at the bottom of my goldfish aquarium. As I was about to say something to that effect, my dad said, “Keep it to yourself. Grits are a famous southern dish and you can’t hurt their feelings by saying you don’t like them.” So I ate goldfish poo-flavored mush and learned to be respectful. On the bright side, I do like grits today, especially when a half pound of cheese and butter are melted in with them.

When I was 16 they even allowed me to travel 3500 miles to live as an exchange student in faraway Peru. Imagine, a naïve teenager plucked from the cornfields of Illinois and plopped down into a country with stunning beaches, abject poverty, thousands of years of history, and a language I didn’t speak.

My 16-year-old self, hiking in the Andes for several days, wishing I had my Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo

My 16-year-old self, hiking in the Andes for several days, wishing I had my Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo.

I’ll admit that for a while I saw (and judged) everything through my sensible Midwestern lens. Don’t businessmen in suits know better than to pee in the street? Would it kill anyone to put a few ice cubes in the Coca Cola? What is that stupid extra toilet in the bathroom without a seat? Why do they have guinea pigs in the food section at the market instead of the pet section?

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Sitting on the 1000-year ruins of Saksaywaman near Cusco, Peru, wondering if there is a McDonalds nearby.

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“One of these things, is not like the other….” Me and my Peruvian host family.

But as the weeks passed I found that when I actually appreciated and valued the differences in the Peruvian way of life–instead of mocking or questioning them–I was a much happier teen. I also learned not to be too swift to judge. Each morning in the shower I remember thinking how totally stupid it was that Peruvians didn’t use shower curtains. I would shower, water would pour onto the floor, the cockroaches would do the backstroke, and afterwards the maid would come in and put newspaper all over the floor to soak it up (as she gave me a semi-dirty look). A month or two later I mentioned this to the other seven American exchange students living in the same town. “Can you believe it hasn’t dawned on Peruvians to use a freaking shower curtain?” I said. They looked at me like I was insane, and promptly told me that they all had shower curtains in their Peruvian homes. Okay, okay, so you don’t judge an entire nation on the peculiar habits of one family….I get it, I get it.

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Finally made it to Machu Picchu, happy to have checked off “hiking” from my bucket list so I won’t ever have to do it again.

My experience also improved as I practiced and practiced my Spanish until I dreamed in it. Life became a little more meaningful, the world a little more interesting, and I no longer had to mime holding myself and grimacing to get directions to the bathroom. For the first time I started to think globally rather than midwesternly (probably not a word, but you get the point), and I was digging it big time.

Now to be truthful, I wouldn’t say I fully integrated into Peruvian culture. I still went out and bought ice cube trays because I couldn’t stomach warm Coke, though the warmish Pisco Sours were never a problem for me. And if I had to relieve my bladder I still bypassed the curb to use an actual enclosed bathroom. Bringing that particular curbside custom back to Illinois would have resulted in a hefty fine anyway.

I left Peru and returned to the States, starting my senior year in high school just two days later. While I’m sure I looked very international and jet-settish on the outside, I was a discombobulated, cultural mess on the inside. I mean, just a few weeks earlier I had hiked three days on an ancient Incan Trail to Machu Picchu, at one point traversing a landslide by inching across a rope. Now I was hanging out at McDonalds and watching HBO.

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Me looking surprisingly chipper despite having altitude sickness, high in the Andes.

Not to say one of those experiences is better than the other–I mean a 15th century Incan village nestled on a mountaintop above the clouds is impressive, but I seriously craved McDonalds fries the ENTIRE time I was in South America. It was just that my mind had been opened so wide to the challenges and joys of another world and then magically I was back in my comfort zone, nestled in my percale sheets (I had not yet discovered the wonders of 1200 thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets).

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The Great Pyramid of Cheops, The Sphynx, an unruly camel, and sunburned me in Cairo, Egypt.

But while culture shock had set in, culture obsession had too. Peruvian culture had merely whet my appetite. I spent a lot of time staring at a world map taped to my wall, trying to figure out how I could experience all those other countries. This time I set my sights on Europe and before my senior year in college I had arranged for a summer internship in Nuremberg, Germany followed by a few months of backpacking through a dozen countries on two continents. It was another life-changing experience where I discovered things like:

  • transvestite cabarets exist
  • the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Cairo is stunning but inside smells like urine
  • cute gypsy kids aren’t shaking your hand but picking your pocket

    Trying to look Italian in Venice by wearing a gondelier shirt.

    Trying to look Italian in Venice by wearing a gondelier shirt.

  • London punks spit on you if you take their picture

    192 London

    My first exposure to live punks and my first experience being spat upon by punks.

  • a gondola ride in Venice costs the same as a night in a fancy hotel, and the gondoliers didn’t seem to be doing too much singing
  • the beaches in Nice are full of pebbles and exposed breasts
  • drinking dark German beer is like eating a Thanksgiving meal
  • one shouldn’t climb all the way to the top of the Acropolis in Athens if one has diarrhea
167 Nice

The beaches of Nice, full of pebbles and breasts galore.

And I haven’t ignored my own country either. I’ve experienced 41 U.S. states, and let me just say that some places in America can feel as exotic/bizarre/challenging as foreign lands. For example, Flat Lick, Kentucky, nestled in a dry county, chock-full of evangelical churches and dollar stores, and whose claim to fame is that Colonel Sanders built the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant here). I was a tad outside of my comfort zone to say the least.

But really, when it comes down to it, I strive to exist outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s mingling with Elvis fans at Graceland, or with a Buddhist monk in a cave in the jungles of Thailand, or with evangelical teachers at a Cracker Barrel restaurant just off the interstate, or with Kuna Indians on an island just off the coast of Panama. For me it’s an adrenaline rush as well as a way to broaden my horizons. I saw this quote the other day by a poet/painter/musician named Ching Hai that perfectly summed up my philosophy:

“This world is a school, the best university. One suffers too much in hell, and one is too happy in heaven. Only in this world we have happiness, anger, sadness, and joy, which make us reflect, learn and discipline ourselves everyday. The more we are disciplined, the stronger we will become.”

PatrioticHorse11-01-300

I’m proud to come from a nation where even horses are patriotic.

And this is where Mrs. Tea Bag and, sadly, quite a few Americans fail. They use Fox News, rather than the world, as their teacher. Their viewpoint is so limited, constrained, and xenophobic that they equate moving abroad with defecting. I’ll admit, I’m not a flag-waving-Yankee-Doodle kind of guy who sings Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American” in the shower every morning (with a shower curtain, of course). And I’ve never felt the need to profess that my country is better than another. Jingoism isn’t my cup of tea.

foxI remember walking down the street in Lima, Peru marveling at how every home flew a flag on Peru’s independence day—until I was told that it was required by law to do so or you’d be fined. Fast forward to a couple of years ago when the Florida legislature passed a law requiring an American flag in every public school classroom, or else you’d be drawn and quartered (well, maybe not quartered). Forced patriotism is so, well, unpatriotic.

real-housewives-of-atlanta-season-5-480x320But I do appreciate many things about the U.S., such as our amazing arts culture, our incredibly diverse population, and Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” (which, thankfully, we can still watch in Africa). I really am glad I was born in the USA, particularly in the wholesome Midwest where I learned to be wholesome. On the other hand, there are many things about the U.S. I don’t appreciate so much right now, like a public education system hijacked by profiteers, people insisting that our country operate under the rules of their particular religion, and American Idol (please somebody, put that show out of its misery). Oh, and Walmart sucks too.

When Jamey and I gave up our old life in America for the sub-Saharan landscapes of Mali, it wasn’t because we hated America. Our life in the States wasn’t horrible at all, but even worse….it was routine! The Jersey Shore kids had their GTL schedule (Gym, Tan, Laundry) but we had our WGDFAIFOT schedule (Work, Gym, Dinner, Fall-Asleep-In-Front-Of-Television). I kept thinking of that darn Teddy Roosevelt quote and fearing the gray twilight approaching:

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Always give the right-of-way to animals with built in weapons. (photo: Nathan Kennedy)

Always give the right-of-way to animals with built in weapons. (photo: Nathan Kennedy)

A gray twilight! What could be worse! We strove to be daring and not let old Teddy down. So, to the consternation of some of our friends, we purposely looked for international schools in developing countries—third world countries—because, well, we like that vibe. We get excited about chaotic streets full of donkeys and cars and long horned cattle and motos and sheep and people hawking jumbo packs of toilet paper. It makes our day to see a dude balancing a dozen trays of eggs, a sheet of plate glass, and a live guinea hen on his bicycle. We actually get a thrill trying to talk the police out of a “fine” for some false offense they pulled us over for. Last week when we were pulled over for our “dark window tinting” we spoke to them in Bambara and they called us their brothers (although we still had to give them some dough, it was amicable).

We understand that this kind of environment disturbs/scares/repels many people, just as

These are not really chipmunks. (sorry to ruin the Disney magic)

These are not really chipmunks. (sorry to ruin the Disney magic)

trips to Disneyworld or fancy shopping malls disturb/scare/repel us. As we were pondering our final choices for schools, one of our best friends said to me point blank, “I’m fine with you going to any place except Mali.” While not exactly a vote of confidence, we realized that if our first choice actually frightened people, it was probably just the place for us. Fortunately our parents, while nervous, are nothing but supportive of their wayward sons carrying on in Africa.

bamako-city-centre-market

Shopping in Bamako….

The advantage to living life while possessing an enormous worldview is that you understand and appreciate the differences in people. Some of us like living in developing countries with dusty roads and questionable infrastructure, while some of us opt for swanky, glittering cities where the electricity actually

Shopping in Paris

….or shopping in Paris? What’s your pleasure?

stays on throughout the day. Some of us return like clockwork to our favorite vacay spots year after year, while some of us wouldn’t think of revisiting a place until we have seen the rest of the world first. Some of us live for theme parks, casinos, or Carnival Cruises, while some of us, um, don’t. So I don’t expect everyone to love (or even understand) our decision to relocate to a place that featured a coup and counter-coup in the couple of months before our arrival. We have our reasons, and that’s really all that should matter.

Ol’ Teddy would be happy to hear that our life in West Africa is anything but routine now, down to the air we breathe…some days there’s a spicy smell in the wind,

Some U.S. schools don't have swings because they are deemed too dangerous. Our school has a zip line.

Some U.S. schools don’t have swings because they are deemed too dangerous. Our school has a zip line.

other days it smells like fresh produce, and other times it smells like acrid burning plastic. And every day at school is an adventure, thank goodness. It’s actually routine to have a prime minister or a foreign ambassador attend the school play or attend parent-teacher conferences. Last month U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s second-in-command (with his posse and bodyguards) popped into my classroom to say hello.

One of our school tortoises assists Robin in teaching the finer points of gothic fiction.

One of our school tortoises assists Robin in teaching the finer points of gothic fiction.

One of the school tortoises found its way into the English classroom the other day. The Dutch parents are throwing a Queen’s Day party at school on Saturday with prizes for the best orange outfit. The teachers had Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s house. We don’t have to teach to a test, so we can integrate the arts and do service learning projects and have recess and teach social studies without feeling guilty and not get stomach aches just thinking about teaching. At school festivals they rig up a zipline from our school water tower to the ground, and even kindergartners partake in it. And there’s a French bakery in our lobby. Hell, I can’t top that last one so I’ll just stop.

Best of all, since our new life began abroad, I’ve yet to run into someone even one-tenth as offensive as that small-minded, large-mouthed wench pushing overpriced tea and insulting strangers with her warped version of patriotism. I won’t ever, ever, ever live someplace where that kind of behavior is acceptable, much less applauded. Not for all of the citrus-peppermint-licorice-boysenberry tea in China.

Meeting the chief of a nearby village, as he chills in a hammock.

Just another routine day in Mali, meeting the village chief as he chills in a hammock.

Chapter 20: Feelin’ Hot, Hot, Dead

Spring has sprung, all 110 degrees of it.

Spring has sprung, all 110 degrees of it.

As a boy growing up in Illinois, March meant Spring was just around the corner. I was always alert for tiny hints, like the sprouting of a crocus from the half-frozen soil, the sighting of a robin fluttering in a dogwood tree, or the sweet sounds of a mother screaming, “Get the hell outta this house with those muddy shoes!”

Now that it’s March in Mali, I’m training myself to be aware of the coming of “hot/dry season” through subtle signs, like the gentle tug of your inner eyelid as it adheres to your dry cornea, the forming of scabs in your nose as you inhale oven-like air, or the distinct sounds of a student vomiting from heat exhaustion during recess (a sound I was serenaded with in my classroom just last Friday).

Jamey and I survived the wet season (June-Oct) like it was nobody’s business. Roads that resembled the mighty Mississippi? We could have pulled a water skier behind us the way

The river/road in front of our house during rainy season.

The river/road in front of our house during rainy season.

we barreled down the middle of these rushing rapids in our Toyota something-or-other (we’ve had that vehicle for 7 months and I still can’t remember what it’s called, but I think it’s silver—or maybe grey?). During this season a monsoon wind blows from the southwest, bringing with it dark, ominous clouds and severe rainstorms with some wicked lightning and thunder. Obviously coming from South Florida, we are accustomed to this type of meteorological event, though I must admit that during the storms here in Bamako there are no old people driving at a snail’s pace with their hazard lights blinking.

The cool/dry season (Nov – Feb) was a dream. This is when the northeasterly Alize wind, the French name for trade wind, blows relatively cool air upon Bamako. Our windows stayed open to let in the refreshing breeze–and maybe a burning plastic smell if the neighbors decided to burn an old suitcase, which they did–and you could actually wear a long-sleeved shirt without passing out.

As we gloated about successfully making it through each season, our colleagues never failed to remind us about what was coming. “Oh, you just wait until March when the hot/dry season starts….bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha,” they quipped, about four hundred times or so.

Soft focus photography? Nope, just a lot of orange dust. Photo: http://polifaso.wordpress.com

Soft focus photography? Nope, just a lot of orange dust. Photo: http://polifaso.wordpress.com

Seriously, I’m actually glad it’s March so they can’t use that line anymore. But then again, the hot/dry season has its downsides. To quote Britannica.com, beginning this month “the harmattan, a dry, hot wind that blows from the east out of the Sahara, sweeps the soil into dusty whirlwinds and is accompanied by daytime temperatures of about 104 to 113 °F (40 to 45 °C).” Anyone for a noontime run?

This is our first experience with a dry climate. And when I say dry, I mean a chunk of the sun fell next to you and sucked every milliliter of liquid from your pores—no sweat, tears, snot, saliva. I sometimes wonder if I still have blood flowing. If it wasn’t for moisturizers I

The Sahara Desert, or my forehead in h

The Sahara Desert, or my forehead in hot season?

would look like the father of the chameleons that crawl all over the place here. Fittingly, the best protection against dry skin is shea butter, or karite as they call it here, which is made from ground-up nuts that grow here. It’s not greasy or smelly, and it makes your skin soft as a baby’s bottom—the perfect remedy for lizard skin.

It was also this month when we first noticed that the master bedroom AC unit (known by the exotic sounding name “climatiseur” in French) didn’t make the room quite as cool as it had previously. We reasoned that the hotter temperatures outside made the AC a tad less effective, but then we woke up a bit sweaty one morning when it was actually cool outside and decided to have it checked.

Now the great part about our housing here is that the school handles all maintenance issues, so we simply put in a work order and someone visits the house the same day and when we get home everything is magically repaired. Except for this time. That evening welinda blair didn’t notice a bit of difference, even though our facilities guy said it was. And then in the wee hours of the morning the AC imitated the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, letting out a sort of “You’re going to burn in hell” scream (I think it was in French, or Latin maybe) and grinding to a halt.

So we dragged ourselves to bedroom #2, which features only a twin bed with room for one. That meant dragging in the twin mattress from bedroom #3 so one of us (and that would be me) could sleep on the floor. We clicked on the small AC unit in that room and tried to return to REM sleep. An hour later at 3:00 AM, when normal people are dreaming or snoring, we were still wide-awake in a warm, stuffy room. Obviously the demon from the master bedroom climatiseur had possessed this unit as well.

So we dragged both twin mattresses to bedroom #3, poured a line of holy water across the threshold to keep out the broken AC demon, and cranked the AC unit to its lowest setting as we crossed our fingers. By 4:00 AM I was nearing frostbite stage, so I assumed all was well with this climatiseur and wrapped another blanket around me.

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Oh you just try and look all pretty after scorching us all day, Mr. Sun.

The next day we filled out another work order, this time for both AC units, and explained the problem to one of our maintenance guys. The trouble is, it’s a little uncomfortable to bellyache over AC temperatures to a guy who not only doesn’t have air conditioning in his own home, but doesn’t even have electricity. I felt like a pampered Palm Beacher complaining that my caviar was too salty or that my Lamborghini looked spotty because someone didn’t dry it after it rained.

Living a good portion of my life a stone’s throw from Palm Beach—one of the wealthiest enclaves on the planet–I’ve had plenty of exposure to pampered rich folks who feel that

the world resolves around them. To earn extra cash I worked a few weekends at a Palm Beach garden shoppe (you have to spell shop like that if you’re catering to the wealthy). One of my tasks was filling palatial mansions with flowers and plants to welcome the homeowners who were about to jet in for the weekend from their estate in Fancy Pants, Connecticut or their penthouse apartment in NYC. We would bring in thousands of dollars of orchids, roses, apple blossoms (or whatever other flowers were not naturally blooming at this time of year) and place them throughout the house.

bathOnce I had to position 30 potted Phalaenopsis orchids around a giant, sunken, white marble bathtub without leaving a single fleck of bark or a spore of moss on any surface or “the wife would go nuts.” I’m telling you, I had all kinds of ideas what I could leave in that bathtub that would really make her go nuts.

Another time, as we were filling a mansion with two vans full of flora, the owners arrived without warning, their private jet having landed an hour early. We were always told that, in the event the homeowners were present, never ever to address them. The husband passed us in the foyer (pronounced “foy-ay” of course) and my friend Mike—against all rules– bid him a good afternoon. Without a word or even a glance in our direction, he went into the master bedroom and slammed the door.

Fill my house with flowers, now!photo: afloral.com

Fill my house with flowers, now!
photo: afloral.com

But we were in a dilemma…we had not yet adorned the gymnasium-sized master bathroom with Norwegian pussy willow or Icelandic edelweiss or whatever ridiculous endangered plant they had requested. And the only way to access the bathroom was to go through the bedroom where Cashy McCashpants was watching TV–which, BTW, rose from a slit at the end of the bed, with just the touch of a button.

The choices were like an old episode of Dynasty: leave the bathroom unembellished and suffer the wrath of the beautiful but cruel socialite, or interrupt the serious mogul/tycoon who was tired after a long day of closing factories and putting hundreds of people out of work. We opted for option two, being slightly less afraid of the husband, but still got a hateful “Don’t interrupt me again” as we left the room.

The only viable outdoor option during hot/dry season.

Jamey poolside, the only viable outdoor option during hot/dry season that doesn’t lead to heatstroke.

This is what I think about when we approach our humble maintenance staff with requests like “Our AC doesn’t seem as cold as usual.” I don’t want to be the evil Dynasty character, even though our modest salary nearly puts us in the wealthy realm compared to what the average Malian earns. I don’t need pampering when our security guard pedals his bike an hour to get here each day, then remains outside in the heat for 12 long hours while inside we watch Downtown Abbey and whine that the AC is not chilly enough. I’m not that guy!

So we were careful to explain the “problem” to the maintenance guys, trying our best to make it sound like a very, very minor inconvenience that we barely noticed. And to be

This is what a 106 degree day looks like...deceptively pleasant.

This is what a 106 degree day looks like…deceptively pleasant.

clear, the maintenance guys always take our “complaints” seriously and are gracious about getting the repairs made…Malians would never think to roll their eyes or call us wimps. Again they spent a portion of the day at our home tinkering with the AC units, changing parts, testing, and so on. Well, you probably guessed that nothing had changed by that evening. Despite their assurance that all ACs were working fine, the climatiseur produced air that was neither hot or cold, just kind of like someone’s breath blowing down on us.

We let this go for a week, hoping that our purchase of a swamp cooler would improve our interior climate. This contraption, a sort of tall fan on a stand with a water reservoir at the

Our cat Zil Zil shuns the sun.

Our cat Zil Zil shuns the sun.

base, puts moisture in the air. Moisture is not a word you hear much during the hot/dry season, unless it’s someone saying, “Look, the sun has desiccated this cat, removing all of the moisture from its body.” So we welcomed this invention into our home, as Jamey assured me that adding moisture to the air would also make it seem cooler (some scientific principle, I think).

Two things, though. (1) When we turn it on, it sounds like an army helicopter full of special ops is hovering inside the room, so TV viewing or conversation is out of the question. And (2) the moisture feature is so effective that if we leave it on for too long, it feels like we are back in Florida in mid-August when the humidity makes it feel like you are walking through a swimming pool.

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During the hot/dry season the sun makes for both excellent photos and excellent heatstrokes.

I finally mentioned our dilemma to Caroline, our school director, who promptly called in the facilities guy and someone to interpret and had me explain the whole ordeal. The end result was that—in one day–they completely replaced two of the AC units. The one in the master bedroom works so well we are considering opening an ice skating rink in the bedroom on weekends to make a little extra dough. The unit in the living room, not so much—human-breathy air at best. We will eventually get up the nerve to report this as well.

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Here the orange dust waits patiently before entering our home.

Fortunately we have not been visited (yet) by the whirlwinds of powdery, orange soil that leave the air hazy and put everything into soft focus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still dusty. If it wasn’t for all of the daily dusting and floor mopping we do (and I mean “we” as in our maid Fati) everything inside the house would appear to be made of orange soil. And that’s after leaving the windows and doors closed all day.

Clothes and shoe dye, otherwise known as orange dirt roads

Clothes and shoe dye, otherwise known as orange dirt roads

We’ve decided that any clothing or footwear we buy in the future will be in shades of burnt sienna only, since that’s the color everything turns eventually anyway. Sadly even our 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets are taking on an orange glow. I’d like to think it’s because they gather dust when they are hung out to dry, but I fear we are transferring orange soil each night from our skin. Soon we will be the color of John Boehner. Wow, come to think of it, if he was nude

Has John Boehner rolled in the dirt in front of our house?

Has John Boehner rolled in the dirt in front of our house?

he would totally disappear into the scenery here.

We really only have to endure the H/D season for 2 more months, and then school’s out for the summer. And honestly, what does it matter what the temperature is when we go from our air conditioned house to our air conditioned Toyota something-or-other to our air conditioned school. It’s not like I’m tarring roofs or laying asphalt roads…I teach in a classroom with two large AC units and five ceiling fans. Poor me.

And frankly, hot weather is not such a big deal here. Unlike the States, there are no weathermen harping on and on about record-breaking heat and showing lists of way you can survive the heat….because it’s always damn hot here this time of year!

People still go about their business working in the fields, selling stuff on the roadside, and living in homes without AC. This time of year Malians often sleep on their roofs in little tents made of mosquito netting. We still get our daily exercise in, doing a run every evening (we even ran to the store to buy olive oil to save a car trip), though we finish a bottle of water during the actual run and don’t produce sweat. And in your daily comings and goings, the weather forces you to slow down and chill out, and that’s a skill we need to learn, stat!

heatwave

On our three-minute drive to school last week, after our night-of-the-broken-AC, I said, “I’m exhausted. This is going to be a looong day.” Just as I finished saying this we passed two guys sleeping on a blanket on the side of the dirt road, next to their semi-trailer truck, clouds of orange dust drifting over them as each vehicle passed. “But I think we’ll survive,” I added as I cranked the AC down another notch and clutched my tin of caviar.

Chapter 18: That’s MALI. With an M. And no AW.

Malawi, not Mali

Malawi, not Mali

Me (with a Toureg) in Mali, not Bali or Malawi

Me (with a Toureg) in Mali, not Bali or Malawi

Bali, not MaliBali, not Mali

A year ago we signed a contract to teach in Mali, an African country that nobody had heard of before. People assumed we said Bali, even though it’s not a country and nowhere near Africa. But it does rhyme.

Or they thought we were heading to Malawi. It was also an obscure African nation, well, until Madonna adopted David Banda and Chifundo there and it was featured on E Entertainment News and in scholarly magazines like People, Us, and Star (whose current cover screams “It’s Demi! Cougar Goes Wild in Mexico: THE SEX WAS VERY LOUD”).

Then people would ask US, “What’s Mali close to?” And we would mention neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Mauritania. And they would do that nod-without-actually-understanding-what was just-said thing.

west africa map

Then two months passed and Mali’s 20 years of democracy disappeared overnight when a group of junior soldiers staged a coup d’état in Bamako. We were certain that Mali would be splashed all over the headlines, but apparently the U.S. media saves that kind of coverage for celebrity adoptions.

madonnamercydavid

Not a single call came from concerned friends or family members because the bloodless coup wasn’t mentioned in the U.S. press. Unless you count those single sentence news blips they bury a few pages in, where I found the coup mentioned right under a blip about David Beckham’s dad having his phone hacked, and right above a blip about Gene Simmons of KISS calling Rihanna ‘fake karaoke’ in a bizarre rant. Now that’s news!

It was probably better, we decided, that Mali’s troubles weren’t front page–or even back page–news in the U.S. We didn’t want our loved ones thinking we were going to be teaching in a war zone. Sure, things in Bamako were sketchy for a short while, with sanctions and a clumsy sort-of counter coup. But except for a couple of tense days at the start, the streets were calm and it was business as usual. The school where we planned to teach continued to operate, though in a “virtual school” format since many of the students and their families left Mali a couple of months earlier than usual. But it would reopen in August and we planned to be there.

But this distraction in Bamako had caused all hell to break loose far in the north of Mali, where Tuareg rebels and then Islamist militants easily overtook small desert towns (Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal) that the Malian military had abandoned. Though horrible for the Malians in the desert, this was not affecting life 1000 miles to the south in Bamako.

The Islamist militants imposed a strict form of sharia law in these desert towns. Despite the fact that Mali is a culture rich in the arts—and has been for thousands of years—the rebels outlawed dancing, musical instruments, listening to music, and even performances by griots, the African singers and storytellers (and repositories of oral history) whose tradition dates to the 13th century.

griot2

A griot at work!

They outlawed watching sports on TV. Women couldn’t wear perfume, go for a stroll with friends, or chat in groups. Those women who didn’t cover their bodies and faces were imprisoned or raped.

So what did the rebels actually allow under this extreme version of the moral code and religious law of Islam? Let’s see, it’s okay to recruit and arm 12 year-olds to fight with them. It’s cool to destroy ancient shrines, tombs, and mosques. And you can read the Quran.

And still, Mali wasn’t in the news.

But that all changed when Islamist rebels in the remote town of Aguelhok stoned a couple for having a relationship outside of marriage. And started public floggings for cigarette smoking or drinking alcohol. And when they cut off the right hands and left feet of five men in Gao accused of robbing a bus, with one of these amputations occurring in the town square.

This kind of horror sells papers and attracts viewers. When a news anchor says, “What we are about to show you is disturbing and not appropriate for young children,” viewership spikes like the Richter scale during an earthquake. They come up with alliterative headlines, like “Mali Madness” and “Massacre in Mali. So pictures and video of the Mali amputees and their bloody stumps were everywhere, and suddenly everyone we knew associated Mali with limb-cutting and death by gravel.

mayhem

I thought it was curious that the media was suddenly interested in the sharia law in these remote desert towns when other entire countries have operated under this system for decades. For goodness sakes, Saudi Arabia operates under sharia law–no constitution at all and the only Arab country that’s never had national elections. It’s the only country in the whole world where women are banned from driving. And the death penalty can be imposed for “homosexual activity” (Having an Oscar party? Singing show tunes? Making parfaits?).

Saudi women go crazy and show their hand skin.

Saudi women go crazy and show their hand skin.

Malaysia, which supposedly operates under a more moderate version of sharia law, sentenced a Muslim woman to a caning for drinking a beer, and could have imposed a three-year prison term. A Muslim male and female who are not married but in a secluded area together can be jailed. In 2003, a Malaysian court ruled that, under sharia law, a man may divorce his wife via text messaging as long as the message is clear and unequivocal. I think all of these situations would make for must-read news stories, or at least a good Lifetime movie: “Scars Across My Buttocks: The Suriawati Sayid Story, a gripping teledrama of a Malaysian housewife viciously caned for sipping a white Zin while she listened to Kenny G.”

But it was the bloody stuff, of course, from the remote Malian north that caught the attention of the U.S. media and eventually of our friends and family. “I guess you heard about the stoning and the lopped off limbs in Mali?” they would ask us in a caring, yet I-told-you-so tone.

“Oh, you mean those isolated incidents out in the middle of the Sahara, 1000 miles from where we will be living?” we would answer.

“And they lashed a guy for smoking,” they would add.

“I often feel like lashing people who smoke, especially when I’m eating,” I would reply.

Meanwhile during the same month the Islamists did those things, the following incidents happened within a 50-mile radius of our West Palm Beach home:

  • two sisters were killed with high-powered semi-automatic rifles in a home invasion; a few weeks later the 17-year-old son of one of the women was arrested for another murder
  • prosecutors released 1000 pages of evidence in the case of a man accused of killing the 6- and 10-year-old children of his girlfriend, stuffing their bodies in suitcases, and dropping them in a local canal; the wife was found dead in a landfill the previous year
  • a man broke into a woman’s home and raped her while her child slept nearby
  • a 6-year-old girl brought two loaded guns in a backpack to her elementary school; they were put there by accident by her uncle, a convicted felon
  • a deputy was put on leave after firing shots at a stolen truck coming toward him
  • a 26-year old man destroyed a psychic’s shop and used his own blood to write FEAR GOD on the window
  • a two-story condo was set ablaze by an arsonist
  • a 19-year old man randomly shot into a crowd of people
  • a judge sentenced three alleged members of the Latino street gang Sur 13’s local chapter to a total of 150 years in prison for attempted murder, armed robbery, and racketeering
  • a 21-year-old man received 9 consecutive life sentences for participating in a violent robbery of a Dunkin’ Donuts in which another man shot several people
  • a man received a 30 year prison sentence for the beating and stabbing death of his 29-year-old girlfriend
  • a man who killed a major league pitcher out for a jog during spring training was released 10 years early from prison
  • a 33-year-old woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity after bludgeoning to death her 80-year-old grandmother and shooting her aunt’s boyfriend
  • a 22-year-old man was arrested for shooting at transvestite prostitutes
  • a 16-year-old boy who brought a gun to a street fight was charged with shooting a 12-year-old girl who was among the onlookers

That same month statistics were released showing Florida ranked 4th from the bottom on the U.S. Peace Index, based on homicides, violent crime, incarcerations, and small arms.

Ahh, nothing like the safety and comfort of home.

To be honest, we weren’t going to Mali to escape the violence in the U.S. as much as we were trying to escape the slow death of our careers! Teaching in the U.S. was about as enjoyable as passing a kidney stone, and at least with the kidney stone the pain eventually passes. Teaching became more and more agonizing with each passing month. It was like some bad movie about a deranged scientist in a secret lab somewhere, constantly inventing ways to make teaching and learning more miserable:

mad sci

Setting: outside of Moody Creek, Idaho; castle-like structure with the lights aglow in a laboratory in the basement filled with bubbling beakers of multicolored liquids. 

A crazy-haired woman, with a face that uncannily resembles Michelle Rhee, wears a stained lab coat. Her assistant, with a face eerily similar to Florida governor Rick Scott peers over her shoulder.

Mad scientist: I DID it! One drop of my new potion in their Starbucks reusable cup and lawmakers will immediately pass a law requiring all the little brats in America to take a single test on one day!

Assistant with Hump Shoulder: But that’s not deranged. Kids always take tests.

Mad Scientist: But wait Humphrey, there’s more. This won’t be just any test….it will ruin lives! Kids will get stomachaches and vomit just thinking about it! Teachers will lose their jobs if their kids don’t score high enough! Schools will be shuttered if the test results don’t meet some ambiguous mark!

Assistant: But there’s plenty of money in the education budgets. Schools will be able to get any resources they need for test prep.

Mad Scientist: Do you take me for a fool? I invented a potion to make lawmakers keen on the idea of charter schools—you know, for-profit enterprises that suck the money out of public school budgets? And don’t worry, by the time states pay companies for providing and grading the tests, there won’t be much left in any budget. Mwahhhha ha ha ha!

(End of scene)

I don’t think our loved ones fully understand our complete and utter dissatisfaction with teaching under these dreadful conditions. And yes I realize there are worse job situations—maybe pumping poo out of porta-potties, cleaning slaughterhouses, or working as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. But we had invested a whole lotta time and a whole lotta money in our teaching careers and all we were getting in return was a shrinking paycheck and expanding ulcers.

Unknown

Personally, I got into teaching to amaze and inspire my students, to knock their socks off about learning, to help them become passionate and thoughtful and empathetic and creative. I have and will continue to invest unlimited time in that pursuit—but not under those conditions listed above. It’s degrading and insulting to me as a professional. In my last position in the States, as a resource teacher for our district office, half of my annual evaluation was based on the high stakes test scores of students at all of our district’s elementary schools….and I worked with exactly two of those schools. Geez, that damn mad scientist has a new potion!

Our novel turns into live action.

Our novel turns into live action.

Honestly, we prefer to teach at an international school–free of this high stakes test madness–even if it’s in a country with a shaky government, rebel skirmishes 1000 miles away, and herds of longhorn cattle blocking the main road in town. I can perfectly justify the negatives here in Mali with the negatives we endured teaching back home. As a matter of fact, let me do so in a chart (I am a teacher after all):

Mali

USA

open sewers are not as stinky as opening our paycheck last year to see a 3% salary decrease (after 5 years without a raise)

 

having to remove red dust from everything is not as bad as having to remove art, music, recess, social studies, and field trips from the school in favor of tested subjects

 

closing the windows when someone is burning tires or plastic bottles is preferable to closing schools when the test scores are too low

 

draining any standing water so as not to attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes  is not as horrible as draining the creativity, motivation, and fun out of education with constant test prep

 

giving loose change to the poor that surround us outside of stores and restaurants is better than giving public money to charter schools that do no better (and mostly worse) educating kids than public schools

 

unreasonable bands of rebels 1000 miles from us is less hostile than unreasonable lawmakers and administrators who continue to allow high-stakes testing to continue

 

Yep we’re in MALI, the place with the conflict in the north, the sharia-law-imposing Islamist rebels, and a ragtag government that’s struggling to keep up. But we are still shopping at the bottle shop warehouse for beer, tonic, and Coke, but definitely not gin because it is that lowly Gordon’s stuff. We still hit our ATM, the one that always works but gives you an amount different than what you selected on the screen. We still frequent our newly expanded minimart that carries things you can’t find anywhere else in town, such as plastic sandwich bags, Clairol Herbal Essence Shampoo, canned tuna in water, and duck-flavored canned cat food. And we still enjoy visits to our friendly neighborhood pharmacy to buy more malaria prevention meds prescribed by Dr. Me-Myself-and-I, no pesky prescriptions necessary. This is a great place to live and to thrive.

Our school sits on the Niger River, which is also just down the road from our house.

Our school sits on the Niger River, which is also just down the road from our house.

Rest assured, we’re fine–really. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that for now, at the end of the day, we come home smiling and feeling like we did one hell of a job inspiring our students.

So the next time the TV is sensationalizing Mali’s conflict, showing a bloody stump or a pickup truck full of smelly-looking rebels, picture the two of us reclining on a chaise on our roof deck, me with a glass of white Zin, and the mellow sounds of Kenny G coming from the iPod. Ain’t Mali grand?

Unknown

Chapter 16: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I don’t particularly fawn over raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. And if I’m ever finding myself in a situation where I notice “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” I’m probably getting frostbite and my toes will eventually blacken and fall off.

But like Maria/Julie Andrews I actually do have a few favorite things, none of

The African hills are alive with the sound of music.

which are Austrian-based at this time (though I’m not adverse to “crisp apple strudels”).

Nope, my favorite things all come courtesy of Mali. Which is good, I suppose, because I do live in Mali now. It would really blow to have lots of favorite things that were Malian and live in, say, a small town in Arkansas—though that would probably blow no matter what. I am extremely thankful that my Malian list of favorite things continues to grow and is much, much longer than my list of “Things That Drive Me Insane,” a list that was always growing when I lived in the States, particularly after a drive on I-95.

Speaking of thankful, I’ve noticed a lot of folks doing a daily “What I’m Thankful For” post on Facebook during the month of November. I thought about jumping on that bandwagon, expressing my gratitude for all my favorite things in Mali. But while I personally enjoy reading these “thankful” posts, there are others who, hmmm how do I say this politely, would rather gargle with bleach than read these. From the criticisms I’ve read, the critics don’t seem to complain about the concept of people being thankful (which I’m thankful for), but rather what they perceive to be the generic/sappy/not-so-creative nature of the posts. I must admit, it is interesting when someone shakes things up a bit, as with these “thankful posts” I saw online from someone named Therese Long of Pearson Education, someone I wish lived next door to me:

1. I’m thankful we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way…invite everyone in my neighborhood to my house, have an enormous feast, then kill them and take their land.

“Contrary to popular mythology the Pilgrims were no friends to the local Indians. They were engaged in a ruthless war of extermination against their hosts, even as they falsely posed as friends. Just days before the alleged Thanksgiving love-fest, a company of Pilgrims led by Myles Standish actively sought to chop off the head of a local chief. ” -from The Hidden History of Massachusetts

2. I’m thankful for watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends my aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.

3. I’m thankful for 38 years of marriage to myself. I have always been by my side and understand me when no one else did.

4. I’m thankful you can delete status updates after 10 minutes of no likes.

5. I’m thankful Facebook is now the second place I have found comfort in talking to a wall.

6. I’m thankful that everyone who likes me is awesome and brilliant, and everyone who doesn’t, is a selfish jerk. Very weird phenomenon!

7. I’m thankful I don’t live in a bubble wrap factory, as I just don’t have that much self-control.

So to avoid any chance of my thankful posts being deemed “generic” (which for me would be the greatest insult EVER), my thankful things list will become my list of favorite things. AND I’ll bury this list deep in my blog where it will be safe from the scrutiny of the general public. Well, other than the 2726 views my Mali blog has racked up so far (!) from people in 52 countries (!!) including Madagascar, Qatar, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (!!!). Which is thrilling and scary at the same time.

 My Favorite Things: Mali Edition

One chocolate croissant, s’il vous plait. And make it fast…I’m late for social studies!

1. The American International School of Bamako lobby which includes a school store and…a bakery! I used to think my school in Florida was pretty cool because it had a soda machine, but a bakery in the lobby?! I’m pretty sure I dreamed this one time (“I was wandering through this school made of gingerbread and frosting, with a French bakery in the lobby and a swimming pool filled with gin and tonic and floaties in the shape of lime wedges, and all of the students were Oompa-Loompas.”).

To top it all off, it’s a French style bakery and the pastries and bread are warm when the bakery guy brings them in the morning. Chocolate or almond pastries are tied for my favorite. Oh, and apple. And the plain is good too. We have a standing order for 5 loaves of French bread (just 60 cents each) every Tuesday and Friday. And no we aren’t big, fat

We always get enough just in case unexpected guests pop in.

pigs…they are skinny loaves and you never know when company might show up unexpectedly. The loaves are crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, and they taste good with anything, like peanut butter and jelly, butter, or gin. Well, gin goes with anything you know.

2. Malian driversI have yet to see one get ticked off or shoot the bird or scream profanities. Even if you pull out in front them. Or hit them. Honestly, we saw a car slam into a moto and knock it clean across the road. The moto driver got up and dusted himself off while the car driver checked to see if he was alright. Then they shook hands and took off.

Out of one lane, many.

To put this all into context, there are basically few/no rules of the road here. If you need to get into traffic you just kind of pull your car into the flow of traffic and the person careening head-on toward you will slow and flash their lights and let you in. On the roads here you can also drive in just about any direction, in just about any lane, or between the lanes, or in the shoulder. Everyone just kind of accepts the traffic chaos and deals with it–without emotion or feeling like they rule the road. Plus they drive sloooooowly. How I miss those giant SUVs that used to zoom up behind my little car in Florida, driving 75 MPH about 2” from my rear bumper, the driver all red-faced and mouthing unclean words because I wasn’t going faster. Good times.

3. The Koraa traditional Malian instrument I love so much I became one for Halloween. It has 21 strings and sounds like a cross between a harp, banjo, and guitar, and maybe a zither too. And it’s made from a darn gourd! Then there’s the way you hold it….

4.  Beverage choices circa 1957: If you want soda, it’s regular Coke made with actual sugar (not corn syrup), sipped icy cold from the famously-shaped glass bottle. No diet stuff, no added fake cherry or lime flavoring, no caffeine-free. Just Coca Cola like Beaver Cleaver drank it. Actually we drink more water than anything else since (1) filtered water is free at school and (2) if you don’t drink a lot of water here you’ll faint.

5. Flag and Castel Beer – For rehydration purposes, of course.

6. K’an Bεn, Our School Cat – No sad, caged hamsters at AISB. Nope, we have a school cat that roams the open-air interior spaces of our school and just loves to be caressed by the kids. He has a weird, endearing meow that sounds like a cross between a cat and Ethel Merman singing.

7. Gingembre – Other than gin, this is my preferred bottled beverage in Mali, a carbonated, sweet, ginger juice drink that has a peppery aftertaste that makes you cough a bit. But in a good way.

8. Amadou & Mariam – Malian musical duo–married and blind–who create “Afro-blues” music that mixes traditional Malian sound with rock guitars, Syrian violins, Cuban trumpets, Egyptian ney (flutey-type thing), Indian tablas (drums), and percussion from the Dogon (an ethnic group from central Mali). They sing in French and Bambara, have opened for U2, and the kids in my class know the words to most of their songs. I move my lips like I do, mostly so I can appear to be cosmopolitan.

9. The Sounds Outside of Our Window – Wacky bird calls that I swear are from the “Voices of the Deep Jungle” sound effects CD, the chanty-sounding Muslim call to prayer far off in the distance, the rattle of vehicles as they bounce over our bumpy road losing parts, neighbors greeting each other in Bambara (which sounds kind of like arguing sometimes, unless maybe they are arguing),

angry sheep being herded to the slaughterhou….I mean to the daisy-filled meadow to frolic and play, the clip clop of a horse or donkey pulling a cart full of lime green weeds/ watermelons/garbage/kids/toaster ovens…

10. Speaking French & Bambara – It’s a slow process and sometimes curse-out-loud frustrating, but we are slowly learning to speak two more languages. The school guards and custodians are informally teaching us Bambara each day (I have a massive cheat sheet), Jamey takes a French class at our school once a week, and I’m still plugging (and cursing) away with my online Rosetta Stone French course.

We’ve been here just 3 months and we can already use our newly acquired language skills to ask for gas at the full service station, order at a restaurant AND tell them I’m allergic to garlic, purchase a variety of bakery goods (I practice this one almost daily), read the text messages from our local cell phone provider (last month one message told me I could win a sheep in one of their contests), give instructions to our mechanic, guards, maid, and/or gardener, and tell the neighbor kids to get the hell off our lawn (just kidding—the 24 hour guards and the 8’ wall around our property seems to take care of trespassers).

So…..when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and drink G&Ts like mad.

These are a few of my favorite things too…smart, creative students who keep me on my toes!

Chapter 15: Cause Every Little Thing is Ghana Be Alright

Ahhh, Fall Break in Bamako. The frost is on the pumpkin and the leaves are a symphony of autumnal colors. Okay, not really. It’s 90 degrees and sunny and any pumpkins around here are diced and added into a mutton stew.

It hardly seemed like we deserve a weeklong break already but in our Life 2.0, this is how we roll. We decided to join our friends/colleagues Thomas and Cindy and their two kids Kailou (13, and Jamey teaches him) and Jade (10, and I teach her) on a sojourn to Ghana, a quick little two-hour flight on Air Mali—which, I might add, served a full meal. Take that cheapskate airlines in the U.S.!

Boarding on the tarmac…still like this better than sweaty, claustrophobic jetways.

We landed in Accra, Ghana’s capital and a sprawling city that seemed to never end. The main part of the city looked much more modern than Bamako as I noticed traffic lights, a Woolworths, and (drumroll)……the Accra Mall! Well of course we asked our taxi driver to stop there since our shopping options in Bamako are limited to roadside stands selling goat heads or gas, and whatever the Lebanese grocery store owners buy from the Chinese wholesalers.

While technically the Accra Mall is a mall (food court, stores in rows, a massive new SUV parked inside that all the men were looking at, traffic clogged parking lot) the two anchors

Pseudo-mall, Accra, Ghana

were Walmart-style stores that smelled like new plastic and were filled with lots of Chinese imports made of plastic. The rest of the stores, lining two short wings of the mall, didn’t have anything we were interested in–not a pair of Gap khakis or an Aunty Anne’s pretzel place in sight. So we headed out in two rickety taxis toward our first beachfront hotel. Along the way we made a stop at a restaurant for some traditional Ghanaian food. I had Red-Red, which is another take on beans and rice and probably wasn’t a good choice for the long, bumpy ride ahead.

It was an interesting ride. We were tucked into two un-air-conditioned taxis. Francis, driver of the taxi I was in, had the radio turned up full volume to a talk-radio station spoken in Twi, a local language that to me sounds like people arguing. And he kept calling people on his cell phone as he weaved in and out of heavy traffic. Lots of tail-gating too. And did I mention there were no seatbelts?

We drove for an hour or so and it quickly became apparent that this is a super-dooper Christian country. There were roadside churches every couple of feet with names like “He is Coming Apostolic Church of Our Lord and Most Gracious Savior” and “Jesus and His Apostles Continuation Church of the Most Holy Redeemer of Jordan” and so forth. Lots of religious billboards too, advertising things like “7 days of Fasting and Celebration” which

The Savior finally got his PhD.

made me wonder just how much starving people could really party down. And the cars had adhesive letters attached to the rear windows saying things like “I am covered in the blood of Jesus” which we saw twice and actually both drivers appeared dry. We also saw “Dr. Jesus” which of course made me wonder how the Savior fairly gets a PhD since he would obviously be able to snap his fingers and a dissertation would just appear.

But most religiously striking of all were the names of the gazillion little booth-type stores lining the roads for almost every inch of roadway. No matter what they sold or what service they performed, they always worked a Jesus-y type of feel in there somehow. For example, there was “God is King Razor Wire Company” that featured a skull and crossbones logo. Also: My Hands are Blessed Sewing Shop, Bride of Christ Aluminum Works, Jesus is Lord Agro-Chemical, God Did It All Fashion Centre, Blood of Jesus Electricals, and I Shall Not Die Motors. If the road didn’t turn into a series of canyons I probably could have recorded more of these names, but the taxi was bobbing up and down like a buoy so I mostly kept my eyes closed.

An hour later finally arrived in pitch blackness at Big Milly’s Backyard in Kokrobite Beach, where we would spend our first two nights.

Relax, oh tourists. But not with drugs.

It’s a walled compound that backs up to a working beach, and includes a big outdoor bar, an elevated restaurant overlooking the crashing waves, and then a series of individual structures containing one or two rooms. Our place had a quaint front porch where we could sit and relax, but the room itself was tiny—really just room enough for the full-sized bed and a chair. There was a little AC unit that didn’t work well the first night but did the

Big Milly’s bar, front and center.

second night. The bathroom was a closet-sized alcove with a toilet and showerhead (no sink) and no door—just a see-through gauze curtain that was not an effective sound stopper, if you know what I mean. I should probably say that the room cost all of $25 and Big Milly’s caters to backpackers, so we knew not to expect Jacuzzi tubs and 1000 thread count sheets (they were tye-dyed here, by the way).

The next day was marvelously sunny and we were excited to hit the beach after being in landlocked Mali for the last two and a half months. I read a little notice on the back of the door that said the beach was safe to walk

…or you’ll be stabbed!

and the villagers were friendly “as long as you brought nothing with you.” Then it said, “For more details ask the receptionist.” So I headed to the reception building and asked the young Ghanaian man about the beach. Here’s how it went down:

Me: Can I bring my camera to the beach?

Ghanaian: No (said without looking up)

Me: Will it get stolen?

G: Yes. (still not looking up and speaking in a monotone voice)

Me: Really…

G: They will mug you. (said matter-of-factly)

Me: With weapons?

G: Knives. So is your room okay?

Jamey braves the beach.

So my parade was rained on a bit since I hadn’t factored in a knifing during this vacation. We did frolic in the water, without anything but ourselves and our bathing suits, and not one stabbing occurred. It’s a working beach so there was always something to see-the wooden boats coming ashore with nets full of fish and lobster and ladies carrying baskets of stuff on their head, like baggies of water to drink or a heaping basket of bras in a variety of delightful colors and patterns, such as camouflage.

We did have a fantastic dinner at the open-air restaurant overlooking the crime-ridden beach—a heap of fresh lobster that really just melted in your mouth. It made us forget all about the potential bodily harm that could happen just a few meters away.

Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat..

All-in-all Big Milly’s had a weird vibe to it, as budget, backpacker-type places often do. There were two English dudes motorcycling across Africa who worked on their bikes right in front of our little house the whole time we were there. There was a serious-looking dreadlocked blonde gal lounging around who may or may not have “worked” there. There were locals playing what looked like speed checkers (not sure that’s a real

Quick pic of me and a boat, then back to the safety of Big Milly’s.

game) around the bar. There were signs saying “Smoking Area – No Marijuana – Cigarettes Only). When I was chatting with the receptionist when changing money, she told me she didn’t like Obama because he “legalized homosexuality.” And when Cindy and Thomas turned in some dirty clothes to be laundered, they came back still dirty, but folded. We were ready for the next hotel.

Off to Green Turtle Lodge

On Day 3 we had arranged for our very own vehicle to take us on the looong journey to the Green Turtle Lodge in Akwinaa Beach (with a couple of sightseeing trips in between), far to the west about 6 hours or more.

Here we are, still in the “this is going to be so much fun to ride in” phase.

We were riding in a tro tro, the Ghanaian term for any public transport bigger than a regular taxi, and it’s usually a cargo van. Ours pulled in an hour late at 9 AM sporting a brilliant orange-red paint job over it’s rickety, rusting frame–what my students back home would have called a “hooptie” or what we might call a vehicle that we would prefer to take a picture of rather than ride in. While Ghana is an English speaking country, the driver didn’t speak it very well, nor did the two guys accompanying him whose roles we didn’t understand. But he assured us he knew where he was going, and off we went. In the exact opposite direction of where we should have been going.

Thirty minutes later we determined we were heading due east rather than west, and the driver swore we were going to Lake Volta in eastern Ghana, even though we had shown him on the map that we wanted to go to the Green Turtle Lodge in far western Ghana. The three guys (whom I’ll call Clueless Driver, Bitchy Co-pilot, and Pee-Guy) were perturbed but turned the tro tro around and back we headed to where we began, now a full two hours behind schedule. The tro tro was un-air conditioned and the windows rattled and the seats were tattered and not very cushiony and the traffic fumes filled the whole inside with a diesel-ish smelling odor. I was trying to imagine a worse form of transportation–maybe a razor blade-covered surfboard? A bike made out of poison ivy and King Cobras? A canoe made of human waste? Our tro tro was still worse.

Cape Coast palace, where tens of thousands of kidnapped Africans were held before being shipped off to a life of slavery.

After a couple of hours we reached Cape Coast, a somewhat picturesque seaside town that features the Cape Coast Palace, a 200-some year old structure that the Obamas visited a couple of years ago. It was originally the place where tens of thousands kidnapped Africans were brought, processed (e.g. branded), and sent through the “Door of No Return” to be herded onto ships for a grueling overseas journey to slavery–if they even survived the voyage. We walked deep underneath the structure where I immediately stumbled into a small water-filled trench, originally where human waste would have flowed. I tried to imagine what was going through the minds of these prisoners as hundreds of them were crowded into these dark, underground dungeons with not a breath of fresh air and no idea of what their future held. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

On the road again, we noticed Bitchy Co-pilot getting more and more irritated, turning around occasionally to say (I think) “This is very far!” or maybe, “I want to stab you” or whatever. We kept restating the directions and the destination, naming the towns we would pass through and exactly how many kilometers between each. Clueless Driver kept pulling over and asking random people on the road if they knew where Green Turtle Lodge was—even though we were hours away and it was a tiny remote hotel off the beaten track. Every time we stopped Pee Guy would hop out and urinate a few feet from the tro tro, with his back to us but still…eew. Seriously, I can appreciate cultural differences and all, but peeing 2 feet from a van full of strangers is just tacky unless you travel back through time to medieval days. It was probably even tacky then.

Roadside scenery

Now this particular routine continued for the next EIGHT hours, with Clueless, Bitchy, and Pee getting madder and madder. The roads turned bumpier, then it got dark and the tro tro windows were so filthy that it was like driving through pea soup fog (there was no wiper fluid, naturally). Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, we went through a village with 5 foot wide mud roads that was having a giant street celebration complete with throngs of people and smoky air and a brass band (I’m totally serious…a brass band in remote Ghana) and they were all reaching into the windows and screaming and chanting.  I thought C, B, and P were going to lose it right there and plow through the crowd at full speed.

After they asked yet another random guy on the road about the lodge, we were directed down another pitch black, muddy, rutted road that eventually turned into a single path with thick jungle on both sides. And was it ever pitch black. Tar black. Ink black. The muddy path was full of deep gashes and sharp ridges, and that old tro tro creaked and swayed and hit bottom over and over. Between the angry crew and the Little House on the Prairie style road my stress barometer was reaching a new high. When Bitchy blurted out something about how stupid this all was, I finally engaged him:

Me (in a near scream): WHAT DO YOU WANT US TO DO?!? WE DON’T KNOW WHERE WE ARE. YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE WE ARE. QUIT TALKING!!

Bitchy (screamy tone): Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

Me: Poot da what?!?

Bitchy: Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

Me: What does that even mean?

Bitchy: Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

Me: I don’t know what you are saying. Turn around.

Bitchy: Poot da mooney on top, poot da mooney on top!

At this point Pee-Guy grabbed my hand and shook it saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” As in, ignore the freak in the front. Thankfully a sign for the Green Turtle lodge appeared in the headlightss and we were there–after being in that ratty tro tro from 9 AM to 7 PM. We decided to give the crabby, clueless trio an extra $50 (which apparently is what “put the money on top” means) but of course Bitchy demanded another $10, to which we just said “GO AWAY” and dismissed him with a flick of the hand, just like in the movies.

Finally at the Green Turtle

Empty beach for miles and miles…

Once our tro tro disappeared into the darkness (thank God), we were led by a tall, be-robed man to our beachfront house at the end of the Green Turtle property. We literally walked along the beach to get there. It was dark but the moon was bright and made the coconut palm fronds sparkle in the ocean breeze. The sound of those waves crashing practically drowned out our conversations. The beach house was brilliant—a  long, covered  front porch along the whole front façade, 2 giant bedrooms at each end with big windows facing the beach (no glass, just a screen) and a steady ocean breeze blowing in,

Our beach home away from home

all solar powered lights and fans, pebbly mosaic floors, and a big bathroom with a shower surrounded by a rock wall. I was thinking that this might have been worth the last ten hours of torture. Well, at least until I saw the composting toilet, which looks like a toilet until you open the lid and peer down into the dark hole where all of the stuff just drops onto dirt. That part wasn’t especially pleasant, especially after a couple of days.

Made me wanna drink more…

All of us shared the beach house, formerly the home of the British couple (and their two kids) who ran the place. Apparently from the scuttlebutt we heard at the bar, this couple had put the place up for sale for 300,000 Euros and flown the coop a year ago to return to Britain. They still own the place but left a manager in charge along with a Ghanaian staff of 20 or so folks. It was evident that without the owners there to attend to the details, well, the details just weren’t attended to. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a magical place—miles of beach without a hotel, house, or person in sight (a few dogs and goats and an occasional sea turtle though), individual cabins/huts made of local materials and powered only by solar energy, the best bar ever featuring a surfboard with the Savior painted on it saying “Jesus Loves Cocktails,” gazebos on the beach where you could eat your meals,

Interpretive dance or a muscle spasm, can’t remember which I was doing.

oceanside hammocks, etc. But as we had to remember with the last place, this was far off the beaten path and budget priced–our house for 6 people was a whopping $50/night. I’ve paid more than that for a bottle of gin.

When we awoke the next morning it was raining, and that would normally bum me out. But it just felt so perfect! We just sat on the porch and chatted, watching the rain hit the slate blue ocean. We ran in the

even looks good in the rain…

rain to have breakfast in the bar–French toast with grilled plantains. The rain eventually stopped and we walked a mile down the beach to a seaside shantytown village called Akwidaa where their shacks were no more than 10 feet from the ocean, and where a crowd of local kids (some of them butt naked, and not just the little kids) gathered to watch these crazy Americans. Obviously not too many tourists made it to this faraway place and I kind of liked that. Of course just when I thought I was at the edge of the world in a place untouched by time we passed a stand selling Coke and Twix bars. And then one of the kids started rapping some Jay Z song.

Me with the village people

Three kids followed us all the way back to Green Turtle, offering to climb a palm and get us some coconuts. We finally said okay, up the palm they went, and minutes later we were sipping fresh coconut milk and eating fresh coconut meat. We gave them a couple of dollars and they left. Kailou, Jade, and I hit the beach again to build a sand castle. Then it soon became clear that our coconut providers had returned to the village and spread

Our coconut hunters

the word that the rich Americans were doling out big bucks! Come one, come all! Lots of kids came, surrounding us and our castle. One five-year-old even had a machete (thankfully for coconut chopping rather than tourist chopping). They kept asking for money and I found the best way to say no was just to sing show tunes loudly. I got through the better part of the Grease songbook before they gave up and walked away. “Those suh-uh-mer n-i-i-i-i-i-i-ghts…tell me more, tell me mo-oh-ore.” I love you Olivia Newton John. Seriously, this could be a great tactic for the army to use to deter enemies.

Sand castles and show tunes.

That night we had a delicious meal of grilled fish, chicken, and lobster in our own little gazebo smack dab on the beach. We had a lantern illuminating our table, and the only other light was the almost full moon. No more machete kids, just waves crashing on the beach. After eating we walked along the shore looking for sea turtles laying eggs, and it’s amazing how old shoes, food containers, and various other things that belong in a trash bin actually look like turtles from a distance. We just pretended they were.

The village people head back after enduring hours of show tunes.

Toward Kumasi

The next morning we had arranged for a better mode of transportation to take us on what we thought was a 4-hour drive north to Kumasi, the heart of the Ashanti culture in Ghana. The Ashanti are legendary warriors who kept the invading British at bay longer than any other group in Ghana. They are also known for their beautiful crafts and their Kente cloth, and are still “ruled” by a king who wears the coolest-looking outfits ever that they believe repel bullets, even though they are made of cloth and feathers and such.

Obviously a crippled donkey would be a better mode of transport than that awful tro tro we endured. Our ride this time was an upgraded van of the last decade without visible rust and still possessing an original paint job with a slight sheen. The driver (whom I’ll call Hoarse Guy) and his partner (Door Opener) seemed nice enough though barely spoke and/or understood English. The bumpy path that seemed to be such a nightmare two nights prior wasn’t as bad during the day in a vehicle with shocks. We were soon zipping down a highway and even with the windows open it was pleasant enough. I could handle four hours of this.

Except it was eight hours. And seven hours of that was on a deteriorating blacktop road that was pockmarked with potholes 8 or 10 inches deep. Hoarse Guy, who spoke with a gaspy, airy voice that was probably difficult to understand in any language, was also thinking he was Speed Racer. He would roar 70 MPH down this awful road, swerving to avoid potholes, driving on the wrong side of the road into approaching traffic, driving onto the rocky unpaved shoulder, well, you get the general idea. The only thing that could be worse is if some weird moth-like creature landed on my foot while we were riding along, bit me, and drew blood. Okay, that happened too! As Hoarse Guy started passing a giant truck on a hill, I had enough. I shouted from my back seat that he needed to slow down and drive more carefully or I was getting out and not paying him a dime. He whisper-talked something and waved his hand, and after that he was less of a danger, but still swerving all over the road.

The best parts were when we followed a giganto truck spewing diesel fumes, and the smoke filled our van, mixing with the dust that was flying through the air too (I had to wipe off my iPad every 30 minutes or so to remove the dusty film). I asked him to turn on the AC so we rolled up the windows and sat in a blistering hot tomb for 30 minutes until we decided the AC didn’t work so well. Hello diesel and dust and various other smells that wafted in (plastic burning, campfire smoke, animal poo, and flowers for a just brief second. I have been on a public bus in the wilds of Peru, in a crazy taxi in crazy Cairo, Egypt, and in a pickup truck on a steep and rocky mountain road in northern Thailand, but this particular trip definitely topped the list of the worst rides ever. I was relieved that at least the two person crew wasn’t belligerent like the last bunch, with hoarse guy remaining silent (or at least inaudible) and Door Opener guy just opening the door for us whenever we stopped.

Our lunch pit stop, where the food smelled like manure and wet cows.

Oh yeah, the pit stop! How could I forget? We asked if he could stop at a restaurant around lunchtime and Hoarse Guy was quite perplexed. He would say that we were approaching a town with restaurants and then we we got to an area that looked sort of like a town we would say, “So is this the town?” And he would whisper-talk, “No, we passed it already.” Then we would repeat our request to eat at a restaurant. This went on for some time. Finally we saw a sign for “The Royal Hotel and Restaurant” and made him pull over. This open air restaurant had a TV blaring with a Chinese kung fu movie. The hostess said they only had rice and foo foo with either fish or goat. I was sitting this one out as it all had garlic in it (my deadly allergy) and my stomach was tied in knots from the ride. When the food came it smelled like farm odors, maybe sweaty and/or butchered livestock and manure. Mmmm mmmm good.

We finally arrived in the town of Kumasi at rush hour, though we didn’t know where our hotel was located. After some pointless driving around which we certainly were not in the mood for, I noticed a large hotel that could be a landmark. Thomas found it on the map, was quickly able to see where we were, and guided Hoarse Guy to our place, the Kumasi Catering Guesthouse.

In Kumasi

Our guesthouse unit, nestled in a garden.

I liked this place the second we pulled in. It was a walled, leafy complex with little bungalows nestled into shady gardens. The room was comfortable with sweet views into garden areas and……it had a TV, cold AC, and free wifi! As much as I bitch about technology ruining my life, these bits of technology made me very happy at this moment. We sprawled on the bed letting the cold air fill the room while we read through a weeks’ worth of Facebook postings and drank icy Cokes. The Internet was fast as lightning, a luxury we don’t have in Bamako, so we downloaded things like crazy, AND watched YouTube clips without any any buffering. Ah, the simple things in life can be so satisfying. That evening we walked to Vic Baboos restaurant where they had American, Chinese, or Indian food. I opted for sweet and sour chicken and a really large Ghanaian beer that took the edge off quickly.

Making foo foo…mashed up casava (and fingers if the pounder isn’t careful)

The next day we headed out in two taxis to the Ashanti King’s palace, a quick five minute drive. But somehow our taxis became separated and Thomas, Jamey, and I were dropped off in a spot where the others were not waiting. Without phones we had no choice but to wait around, and after 20 minutes we found the others who had been dropped off at another entrance. The palace was a colonial style house that was the former residence of the king—he now had a sassy modern home just behind that looked like a house you would see in a basic gated community in the U.S. But the old place was cool—lots of history and life-sized wax figures here and there that would freak us out every time we walked in a room.

Eyes are the window to our soul, and this dude’s soul is wacked out!

Next we headed off in two taxis to the Cultural Center to visit the Jubilee museum and have lunch. Another 5 minute ride, but my taxi with Cindy and Kailou arrived and the others didn’t. Surely they were just caught in traffic and would be pulling up any second. An hour later, just as we were going to call the American Embassy and report a kidnapping, they pulled up. Turns out their driver took them to Jubilee military park on the outskirts of town where they encountered a big parade and lots of traffic.

We blew off the museum in the interest of time and had lunch, then walked to find the famous “Okomfo Anokye sword,” a sword that has supposedly been in the ground for 300 years that many have tried to pull out (including, supposedly, Mohammad Ali).

C’mon, pull out the sword and ruin a centuries old kingdom. Or just drink some schnapps.

If you do pull it out the entire Ashanti kingdom is supposed to collapse, so I’m guessing they aren’t rooting for anyone to be successful. It was bizarrely located in a hutlike structure on the grounds of a hospital. In order to get there we had to pass through the hospital mortuary area and guys pushing carts with metal domes over them and bodies underneath. We paid our $1.50 to get in the hut and sure enough, inside there was a little wall surrounding a small pit in which a sword handle protruded, and empty bottles of schnapps laying around it. Not sure what the Ashanti-schnapps connection is, but we also read that you can get an audience with the current Ashanti king if you bring along a bottle of schnapps. At least we now he has fresh pepperminty breath.

Our final stop was to be a hat museum, a private collection of some 2000 hats from around the world. This time our two taxis stayed together and arrived together…success at last! And the hat museum had closed a year earlier. So it was back to the guesthouse for more TV, Internet, cool AC, and icy cold Coke (I wasn’t complaining). We again had dinner at Vic Baboos (though we did hike around looking for other restaurants) and this time a group of young Americans was clustered at the door. We struck up a conversation and found out they were Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana. They asked us where we were from, and we told them we lived in Mali. “You live in MALI? Wow…..” one replied.

You know when you impress Peace Corps people, the ones who actually live in huts in villages in the middle of nowhere and walk miles to get water from a well, you have earned some street credibility. We told them things in Bamako were fine but I could see they thought we were sooo brave for living in a post-coup nation with Islamist terrorists roaming the northern half of the country. I wanted to tell them how I had to dodge machine gun fire on the way to work every day, and use Kung Fu to keep the terrorists at bay, but I’m not sure I looked so Indiana Jones-ish in my matchy-matchy Original Penguin outfit. They also advised us to take a bus back to Accra rather than a tro tro since the 6 hour ride was REALLY bumpy. Just the outlook we wanted to hear.

The next morning I awoke early and decided to check the bus schedule for the next (and final) day of our trip. As often happens when Googling, I found a blog about traveling in Ghana and how one could fly between Kumasi and Accra. FLY! In just 45 minutes! I checked the website and not only was there availability, but the cost was only 40 bucks a ticket! I ran like the wind to Thomas and Cindy’s room with the news, and even thought they were still in bed they were excited at the prospect of missing out on a 6 hour bumpy bus ride in lieu of a zippy little flight. We decided to leave that afternoon rather than stay in Kumasi another night, so we bought our tickets online and found a beachfront hotel for our final night in Ghana.

Back to Accra

Restaurant at the new hotel, open air and stocked with alcohol.

The flight to Accra was a dream–fast, efficient, and safe, and we were even able to read our iPads and Kindles the entire time, even when taking off and landing. A couple of taxis were waiting to take us to the Alfia African Lodge, a quaint compound of 22 units on the beach. This being the big city, the price was 4 times what we paid for a night at our other budget hotels, but the beach was fun although littered with trash that I just pretended was big seashells. Dinner was to die for, another open air restaurant with ocean views, and super tasty, creative fare. I had mango curry chicken with a dessert of coconut lemon syrup cake (when all 4 words of a dessert make me salivate I know it’s gonna be tasty), washed down with almost a liter of milk stout, a really dark stout made in Accra that almost tastes like beef.

Hotel decor.

Back in our hotel room, which had a view of the ocean if you craned your neck far to the left, we drifted off to sleep with a smile on our face. Then we awoke at 1 AM sweating because the AC had stopped and it felt like we were locked in a metal shipping container in the middle of the Sahara. We tried to turn on the fan, but nothing. And the windows didn’t open. I attempted to call the front desk, but the phone didn’t work. Goodness, had the zombie apocalypse just happened while I was dreaming for the past two hours?

I dressed and started out for the reception area, and found the security guard who informed me that the front desk was closed and would open at 6 AM, and they could help me then. No, no, no I said. We need a new room now, not in 3 hours. “No poss-ee-bull,” he said. I asked him to call the owner. He chuckled. He said he would find help and left, but after 40 minutes I saw him slowly wandering around the compound again, not even thinking about us.

Accra beach with its big, big seashells

I started in again and didn’t let up and he eventually sent me to security guard number 2 who I think was a clone of the first guy, or maybe just the first guy playing another role to confuse me. “Go to sleep for 3 hours he told me, then we fix,” he offered. No, no, no I said again. “I’m going,” he said to me. “Going where?” I asked. I’m going,” he repeated. Was he blowing me off? After a lot of back and forth I figured out that he was trying to say “I’m going to be right back. By now it was 3 AM and we were sitting sweaty in a tomb of a room since going outside meant risking malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

At 3:30 AM he returned with a somewhat disheveled looking guy with grey dreadlocks who I guess was the owner, and he was very kind and apologetic. He said he had another room for us and to leave everything in this room for now. The new room was smack on the beach with the best views and had the chilliest AC ever, arctic really. We slept soundly for what was left of the rest of the night.

View from room #2

The next morning, our last in Ghana, we decided to splash in the ocean one last time amidst even more “seashells” that arrived overnight. We had another tasty meal in the restaurant and headed to the Accra airport. I now sit at the departure gate ready for the 2 hour flight back to Bamako, and school in just 15 hours. Bumpy roads, carnivorous moths, machete-wielding toddlers and all, it was a Fall Break to remember.

Tae Kwan Do on the beach.

Chapter 14: Baa Baa Dead Sheep, Have You Any Wool?

Malians will soon celebrate Tabaski, the most important religious celebration of the year. Known as Eid al-Adha in the rest of the Muslim world, this is the “Festival of the Sacrifice” that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to kill his son for God, another charming, pro-family parable that Christians and Jews also include in their holy books.

Dad, how about you just ground me for a week?

Even as a kid I found this one to be a hard sell…it’s not okay for cult leader Jim Jones to tell his followers to drink poison Kool-Aid as a sign of obedience, but it’s okay for God to tell a father to kill his kid as a sign of obedience? I was pretty sure I couldn’t be friends with, much less worship, anyone who encouraged me to stab or poison someone.

Now listen, it’s not a secret that I am no fan of organized religion. I don’t even like to talk about religion. Never have. Even when I was part of one for many years, I considered it a private thing that was nobody’s business but my own. Which is why it creeps me out when people hawk their religious beliefs like Ron Popeil on late night TV trying to sell his GHL-9 Hair-in-a-Can-Spray (“Forget those ratty-looking wigs and toupees! Get a full head of luxurious hair in just seconds with a single touch of a spray nozzle!”). News flash! I really don’t want to know why your religion and your particular savior is better than another (“Forget those ratty-looking Buddhists and Muslims! Get eternal salvation in just seconds with a tax-deductible donation to our Christian church!”)

Back in my Florida I was pretty savvy at identifying the religion hawkers as they slinked through my neighborhood looking for convert$. Two wholesome-looking boys with white, short-sleeved shirts? Mormons with their holy undies and their spirit baby-making god on the Planet Kolub. A group of four people in frumpy clothes, mostly minorities, with a child in tow?

Source: AP

Jehovah’s Witnesses about to convince you not to celebrate your birthday. Cute-ish 20-somethings with fashionable jeans and hair styles? Non-denominational Christians from the hip megachurch with the rock band and Jumbotron screens and their “Seriously dude, Jesus is so awesome!” lingo. Icky, icky, icky.

When I was a sophomore, flyers suddenly appeared all over school inviting everyone to a Halloween event at the fairgrounds outside of town. Free food/admission/bus, loads of scares…what teen could pass that up? And my did it ever turn out to be scary—in ways I never expected! First there was a long walk through the inky black woods where the sponsors had created scenes of gruesome horror: disemboweled bodies still writhing in pain, devilish-looking monsters feasting on children, ax-wielding freaks jumping out to scare us out of our wits.

Can I get an “amen?”

Afterwards we were herded into an exhibition hall where even scarier things awaited…a Baptist church group preaching to us for nearly an hour telling us that if we weren’t “saved” our lives would be very much like that horror walk we just went on. They goaded us to come to the stage and “accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-Lord-and-Savior” or regret it for the rest of our lives (writhing, disemboweled bodies or Jesus Christ…it’s up to you!). I was only 15, but even then I knew these religious shysters had pulled a fast one. A really creepy, inappropriate, disrespectful, and probably illegal fast one I might add.

This religious boasting thing really is uniquely American and almost always involves Christians. I’ve not seen this odd behavior in any of the 40-some countries I’ve visited. You don’t see religious bumper stickers in Thailand (“Buddha is the reason for the season”) or Morocco (“Allah is my co-pilot”). In India I doubt they say, “Vishnu Bless You!” when you sneeze. I’ve never read a Facebook post that says, “Ganesha is great!” or heard a Japanese person say, “If they just allowed the Book of Tao is schools these days we wouldn’t have all of these problems.” In my experiences, the rest of the world (excluding

crazy fundamentalists who are just, well, crazy) just doesn’t seem to find it proper to boast about religion.

Which brings me back to Mali. While Mali is a Muslim country, it is a very moderate Muslim country that actually considers itself a secular nation (and again, of course I’m not including the wacko Islamic extremists causing havoc 1000 miles to the north of here, imposing Sharia law and stoning people).

Roadside mosque outside of Siby, Mali.

I’ve been around dozens of Malians every day for three months and not once—not even one single time—has any of them told me Allah was awesome or that the Qur’an had the answer to all of my problems or that I’d better get myself down on that prayer rug and face Mecca…or else! It’s a beautiful and classy thing to see a people so secure in their beliefs that they don’t need to act like a freakin’ carnival busker to advertise their faith.

Even more endearing, the Malians are the absolute least judgmental folks I’ve ever encountered. They don’t criticize other religions, hold you to a standard set by their tenants of faith, or pass judgment on your life. I’m not an authority on this, but I’m thinking that a married, male couple sleeping in the same bedroom here in Bamako is something Islam doesn’t look kindly upon. But again, not once has a Malian given us a condescending Church-Lady stare or treated us like we were “inherently disordered” (as the Pope describes gay people—as he wears his bejeweled gown). As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. Malians have been gracious like grandma at Christmas time, always generous beyond what’s expected, authentically kind, and extremely genuine.

Now Tabaski is the most important holiday in Mali, a country that is 90 percent Muslim, and it involves all kinds of actions and preparations. People ask for forgiveness from those they have faulted over the year. They have family dinners. They pray. They give to the poor. For those of us with household help, it’s customary to give your maid an extra month’s salary. Fathers give money to their families to buy new clothes, jewelry, shoes, and to get their hair done.

baaaaad to the bone

Fathers who can afford it must buy one sheep (or several if they have more than one wife) that they will offer as a sacrifice on October 26th, the day of Tabaski this year. On Tabaski one-third of the their sheep’s meat is eaten by the family, another third is given to relatives and friends, and the final third is given to the poor and less fortunate.

Sheep are everywhere this time of year, and of course the prices go up as Tabaski gets closer. Malians often save their money all year long to buy a sheep that they will clean up and keep inside their house in the days preceding the holiday. This year sheep prices range from $150 and up,

roadside sheep market

with some large rams going for five or six times that price (and this in a country where the average worker’s salary is $1500 a year). Just down the road the family that owns the mini-mart (which makes Mr. Drucker’s General Store on Green Acres look like a palace) have the most beautiful, brilliant white ram tied up right outside their door. I can only imagine how many bottles of orange Fanta they had to sell to buy that nearly cow-sized creature.

Since this religious holiday is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, it results in the annual slaughter of 100 million animals in just two days (is it just me, or is it peculiar that 100 million animals are killed to commemorate a father’s willingness to kill his son?). Sheep are the go-to slaughter animal in Mali, but other countries sacrifice cows, goats, lambs, and camels.

school sheep, for now; dinner, later

Even the two sheep that were keeping our grass low at school weren’t immune from all of this. On Friday morning I was showing a PowerPoint about earthquakes in my classroom when our director rushed in, glanced at the windows, quickly pulled one of the curtains closed, and dashed out. Was she worried that the light from the window was obscuring the screen? Making sure all of the curtains were evenly arranged? Nope. Later she told me that the ceremonial slaughter of one of the school sheep happened in the playfield just outside our classroom window, and she wanted to make sure the kids couldn’t see. Supposedly it’s done in a quick and humane manner, but I’m thinking a PowerPoint about seismic waves is probably better for kids to watch than a sheep’s neck bleeding into a hole in the ground. Just my opinion.

Friday evening we went to our director’s home to attend the school’s Tabaski party, being held early since we are on fall break next week when the real Tabaski happens. The main course at dinner was, you guessed it, Mr. School Sheep Who Was Killed Right Outside Our Window.

Our director with school custodian Lassi, winner of the sheep raffle at our Tabaski party

The second school sheep was there too, but alive and tied to the fence. He was raffled off to a Muslim staffer. A young custodian won, and in my head he is going to raise this sheep as a beloved pet that he dresses in cute clothes and hats. I have to say it was rather odd watching everyone tear into their roasted mutton as the mutton’s former friend was nervously watching from a few feet away.

It’s customary to dress up in traditional garb for this type of event, so Jamey and I donned the new boubous we had

Jamey and I sproting our traditional boubous in a non-traditional polyester fabric.

purchased at a market in Siby a few weeks ago. This pants and tunic combo can be quite comfortable if it is made from a natural fiber. However, we opted for cheap boubous made of polyester that seemed to trap body heat like a terrarium, especially with our current weather conditions. Mali basically has three seasons: hot (March – June), rainy (July – October) and “cold” (November – February when daytime temps only reach into the 80s…brrr!). But oddly, October includes a brief “mini-hot season” so currently the temperature reaches into the upper 90s with high humidity, creating terrarium-like conditions under our boubous that are perfect for growing orchids, ferns, and fungal diseases. However, the Malians so appreciated the fact that we were wearing these traditional items of clothing (which are traditionally not polyester), giving us lots of “tres jolie!” and “c’est bon!” type of comments (very beautiful, it’s good) that almost made us forget the sweat streaming down our back. Fashion before comfort I always say.

teachers and student dressed for Tabaski celebrating

Despite knowing that the food had been frolicking in our schoolyard a few hours earlier, it was an enjoyable Tabaski party. The Malian band was superb and we all

traditional Malian music kept the mood festive

ended up dancing under the stars for quite some time. If polyester could actually absorb liquid my boubou would have been dripping wet after this physical activity, but it maintained its crisp, unnatural form throughout the night.                    And while I don’t share the Malian religious beliefs, I’m happy to be part of their Tabaski celebration. I’m just mirroring their approach to life, treating people respectfully despite their religious or moral beliefs. Just don’t make me eat the school pet.

everybody dance now!