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

daktari

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

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

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

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

african queen

Ms. Hepburn…why don’t you sweat?

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

africa screams

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

jungle cruise

A hungry, hungry hippo in lifelike plastic.

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

Cairo

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

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

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

Marrakesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

french_unit

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

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

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

The Colors

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

dirt

 

The People

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

guards

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

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

chief

 

The Expats

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

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

 

The Weather

road

Our road turns into the Jungle Cruise.

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

 

The Arts

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

 

House Calls

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

 

The Simplicity

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

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

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

 

The Adventure

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

Paris august 2012 - 066

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like pretty, but I like adventure more.

 

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

bush

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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.

DSC09649-1024x452

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
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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.”

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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.

P3172341

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.

P3172332

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.