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

Fessler trip west jul 1975

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

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

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

Beer...better than Tylenol.

Beer…better than Tylenol.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DPRK is mostly undiscovered territory for non-Asian tourists—only about 6,000 Westerners visit each year, and maybe only 500 or less are Americans—so we were curious to see this secretive and mysterious place for ourselves. And besides, over the years we’ve found that people-to-people contact is one of the best ways to dispel myths and stereotypes about each other. Of course we heard the old standby criticism “But you’re giving money to dictators blah, blah, blah.” Well, listen here Patty Patriotism. Every time you buy some cheap plastic crap at your beloved Walmart, you’re inadvertently supporting dictators too, so there!

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

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

(Happy squeals and applause).

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

(Hoots and hollers and more applause).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0428

Thank goodness at least the sky had color.

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

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

img_0416

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We love white daisies and hate Americans!

We love white daisies and hate Americans!

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

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

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

img_0457

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

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

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

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

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

img_0460

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

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

img_0473

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

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

 

Chapter 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.

cv6

cv8

cv3

cv7

cv 1

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.

snow_white_st

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.).

thumbs.sapo.pt

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.

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 2.40.30 PM

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.

ChateauMiraval1

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.

IMG_1030

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.

IMG_0671

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

Image

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?

Image

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:

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image


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

Image

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)

Image

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.

Image

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

Image

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?

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

Chapter 15: Cause Every Little Thing is Ghana Be Alright

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

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

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

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

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

Pseudo-mall, Accra, Ghana

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

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

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

The Savior finally got his PhD.

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

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

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

Relax, oh tourists. But not with drugs.

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

Big Milly’s bar, front and center.

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

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

…or you’ll be stabbed!

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

Me: Can I bring my camera to the beach?

Ghanaian: No (said without looking up)

Me: Will it get stolen?

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

Me: Really…

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

Me: With weapons?

G: Knives. So is your room okay?

Jamey braves the beach.

So my parade was rained on a bit since I hadn’t factored in a knifing during this vacation. We did frolic in the water, without anything but ourselves and our bathing suits, and not one stabbing occurred. It’s a working beach so there was always something to see-the wooden boats coming ashore with nets full of fish and lobster and ladies carrying baskets of stuff on their head, like baggies of water to drink or a heaping basket of bras in a variety of delightful colors and patterns, such as camouflage. We did have a fantastic dinner at the open-air restaurant overlooking the crime-ridden beach—a heap of fresh lobster that really just melted in your mouth. It made us forget all about the potential bodily harm that could happen just a few meters away.

Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat..

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

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

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

Off to Green Turtle Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roadside scenery

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

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

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

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

Me: Poot da what?!?

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

Me: What does that even mean?

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

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

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

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

Finally at the Green Turtle

Empty beach for miles and miles…

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

Our beach home away from home

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

Made me wanna drink more…

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

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

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

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

even looks good in the rain…

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

Me with the village people

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

Our coconut hunters

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

Sand castles and show tunes.

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

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

Toward Kumasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Kumasi

Our guesthouse unit, nestled in a garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Accra

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

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

Hotel decor.

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

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

Accra beach with its big, big seashells

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

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

View from room #2

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

Tae Kwan Do on the beach.