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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapped in a Tomb

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

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

iPhones and Thermal Baths

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

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Pool #4, minty-flavored

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

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

Bike Riding and Food Poisoning Along the Danube

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

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On our way to the Botulism Cafe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Paparazzi!

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

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

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

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

Red Eyes at Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 22: Zombies, High-Stakes Testing, and Cab Calloway

The other night I was awakened at 3 AM when the electricity cut out for the eighth time, the AC unit sputtered to a halt, and the guard cranked up the generator, which sounds like 100 of those machines at Home Depot that automatically shake your paint can. paintAs I was lying in bed with that soothing, lullaby-like background noise, I started to reflect on this school year which, surprisingly, is drawing to a close.

Seems just like yesterday when I stepped foot for the first time in my classroom at the American International School of Bamako. Before our August 2012 arrival the school had been shuttered for four months, closing in April as a result of some, um, minor issues in the country. Okay, maybe they weren’t so minor (and mom and mom-in-law, you can just skip over this next part and head straight to the next paragraph). Maybe there was a coup that effectively ended Mali’s record as the West African country with the longest and most stable democracy. And maybe this led to the total destabilization of Mali’s north and allowed crazy Islamists to take over a few towns up there that required thousands of French troops to flush them out and a huge contingent of UN troops to keep them out. But I digress.

Anyway, when I walked into my new classroom it had the look of a suddenly evacuated classroom that had been empty for awhile, sort of like when the humans in The Walking Dead went into that abandoned school looking for shelter from the zombies, although I can assure you that I have not spotted a single zombie on the school grounds here yet. Written The-Walking-Dead-Walkpapers-D-the-walking-dead-30444936-1440-900on the board in dry erase marker that wouldn’t erase was “April 5, 2012” and “It’s the zombie apocalypse!” Wait a minute, I think that last sentence was from The Walking Dead, but you get the idea.

Every surface was covered with a layer of Tang-colored dust. There was a chocolate bar in the teacher’s desk (and yes I tried it and it tasted old but I ate it anyway). And the student desks and cubbies were still stuffed full of half empty notebooks with 3D covers (I snagged a 3D Transformers notebook that I proudly used all year long), dried out markers, desiccated foodstuff, love/hate notes, socks, half-full water bottles, and the like. I really did feel like one of The Walking Dead humans scavenging for goodies as I picked through everything in this room (and the room next door), creating stockpiles that I used all year long.

Once my classroom environment seemed more conducive to learning and less like a potential battleground for the undead, I was ready to plan my lessons. And then it hit me like a crowbar across a zombie’s crumbling skull…here at AISB I was free from the shackles of high-stakes testing! I’m sure I levitated off my chair a few centimeters.

I looked on my desk, and there was no gigantic binder swollen with pages of information about the formats of questions on the state test or which benchmarks to focus on and which to ignore. No stack of graphs showing me how pathetic my school was compared to the test scores of other schools. No school “data wall” made of color-coded index cards, two per student, showing their most recent state test score and taped to the wall in a massive 10’ x 30’ display that showed us which students to really pay attention to and which can function independently (e.g. which ones you can ignore). data wallNo faculty meetings in which we were told to put the arts, social studies, field trips, and guest speakers “on the backburner,” (e.g. until the state test was over in April). And no know-it-all school district people skulking around the school, popping into our classroom to make sure we were focused on state test prep and not something useless like learning about the three branches of government or learning to speak a foreign language.

Back in Florida a few years ago I wrote a Grade 4 language arts unit based on a short story about the Harlem Renaissance. I really couldn’t imagine teaching about the Harlem Renaissance without exposing my mostly African American students to the wonderful music, dance, literature, and visual art from this exciting time in U.S. history. harlem renSo I was about to begin teaching a lesson from that unit when in walks a gaggle of District “experts,” sour-faced minions who lined up across the back of my classroom with the body language of an executioner—no slight welcoming head bob or quick smile to put me at ease. They clutched notebooks and iPads (because you can look even more official when you carry an Apple product) and had that “so-get-teaching-so-we-can-criticize-you-and-move-on-to do-it-some-more” kind of look.

Frankly, I wasn’t ruffled in the least. Judging by their fashion and hair choices alone, I knew I didn’t have a whole lot to worry about. Although the lesson I was about to teach wasn’t as drill-and-kill/worksheety as they probably hoped for, I was a dutiful soldier because I had done everything on the district checklist:

  • objectives written on the board in kid-friendly language (check!)
  • monthly skill schedule posted next to the door, although it was kind of a fake one I did for show (check!)
  • “anchor chart” of the skill I was teaching stuck to the wall (check!)
  • detailed lesson plans—complete with every tested benchmark color-coded—on my desk for all to see (check!)
  • all creative inclinations, emotions, and personal opinions drained from my body (alright, so I didn’t do everything on the checklist)

Bring it on, I thought to myself.

I began by playing a blues song from the Harlem Renaissance–Graveyard Dream Blues bessie_smithby Bessie Smith–and asked the kids to pay close attention to the lyrics, any patterns they noticed, and the music itself. Afterwards I charted their observations: it was about a sad subject, certain lines were repeated, and the music was slow and gloomy.

Next I played a jazz song from the same era–Harlem Hospitality by Cab Calloway)–and again asked the kids to listen carefully. cabcallowayWhile the song played the students bounced and swayed to the music—I mean it was Cab Calloway music after all! However, those goofs in the back stood as still as statues. Really. So then I charted the kids’ observations: this song was about joyful things, the lines in the song were short and jumpy, and the music was fast and fun. We spent a few moments comparing and contrasting the two songs in a Venn diagram since compare/contrast was my targeted reading skill.

Next I showed PowerPoint slides of two Langston Hughes poems that we read aloud. After they got a good feel for each poem I explained that one of these was considered a “blues poem” and one was a “jazz poem,” and it was up to them to decide which was which. This required them to refer to the notes about the blues and jazz songs, so in teams they tried to match the characteristics of the poems with the songs.

The discussion was animated and sort of fun to watch—they were singing lines from each song, arguing about what certain stanzas meant (“Seriously Kayla, do you think a sad person shimmies and shakes? That’s jazz, okay?”) , and pointing out patterns in the songs and poems. Eventually they did correctly identify each poem, and we spent some time reflecting on why a poet would write in two such very different styles. Their comments showed real critical thinking, and even better they asked me to play the songs again (and again). They were also now instant fans of Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway.

I was thrilled and so proud of my students. But the Sour Squad in the back stood motionless, like wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s museum–just not as lifelike, though. jane lynch 040810They solemnly filed out of my room and into the class next door to spend some more quality time glowering. Even though a cloud of gloom surrounded them, I was somewhat hopeful that even they could clearly see that my students (a) were actively engaged in reading, (b) had thoughtfully applied the skills of comparing and contrasting, (c) tackled poetry that Grade 4 students seldom tackle.

But it was not to be. In the voluntary feedback session that I decided to attend (along with our principal and just one other colleague who showed up), the leader of this pessimistic pack–a PhD, mind you–first addressed my colleague and rambled on in some gobblety-goo edu-speak laced with plenty of buzz words (that year they included “efficacy” and “laser-like focus”) and plenty of acronyms (at a two day workshop I attended that year I recorded 67 acronyms the speaker used). Then she sighed deeply and said to me in an emotionless tone—without making eye contact of course–something like, “I really don’t even understand what you were doing.”

yosemite_sam_stressedAt that moment I’m pretty sure I looked like an outraged cartoon character with steam shooting out of both ears and my enlarged eyeballs boomeranging out of my head. My principal, noticing my reddening face, blurted out something like, “Well, Dr. Dourbutt, you have to understand that Jeff uses many different techniques like arts integration and….” But Dourbutt cut her off and started with the rambling edu-speak again. So then I cut her off.

“Have you ever taught at a school like this, with mostly African American students living below the poverty level, smack dab in the middle of the worst crime-filled neighborhood in town?” I asked in a fake, calm voice.

Before she could answer I added, “Do you know that every year my student’s high-stakes reading test scores exceed those of the school district and the State of Florida? And I don’t use test prep workbooks or test prep worksheets and I don’t drill-and-kill them to death. And they love to read.” I was on on fire and felt like I had those eyes the demons have in that show Supernatural.demon

Then I went on a bit of a rant, schooling her on the research-based approach of arts integration and how my students need to understand the amazing cultural contributions of African Americans and reminding her as often as I could that I was a National Board Certified Teacher in literacy and, oh yeah, that I was a published author and at least my shoes were well cared for and polished instead of all scuffy like hers. Well, I didn’t say that shoe part but I sure as hell wanted to.shoe

Then I did one of those little moves from the movies that you always want to use for real. I curtly said, “Well, I’m done here,” slammed my notebook shut, and got up and walked out. Except I walked out in the wrong direction and had to embarrassingly circle back and pass that same room again, where I heard my principal trying to smooth things over the best she could.

toy 2011 113Well guess what? There is actually a happy ending to this story. That very same year I was chosen Palm Beach County Teacher of the Year based on the “innovative instructional approaches” I used. I was honored out of a pool of 13,000 teachers for using techniques that ol’ Dr. Scuffy Shoes didn’t even understand! And of course I used every speaking opportunity required by this award to retell this ironic Dr. Scuffy Shoes story, even though it made for some awkward laughter once when the crowd was mostly school district office folks.

Fast forward two years later, and here I am in Mali where I’ve successfully escaped from Planet Testobsessed. I’ve landed in an international school totally unaffected by corporate “reformers” like Bill “I didn’t finish college but I know what’s best for teachers” Gates and Michelle “My kids go to private school” Rhee. But get this…we still give a normed-referenced test (the MAP). It’s a couple of short computer tests we give at the beginning and ending of the year, and we receive instant results. We use that immediate data, along with many other measures like classroom observations, class work, teacher-created tests, parent conferences, etc., to plan and tweak our instruction to meet each kid’s needs. Radical, huh?

However, unlike in the U.S. the results from that one test do not determine my salary or bonus or whether or not I’m fired or whether or not I get an ulcer. And my school is not assigned a grade based on the results, and punished with a spanking or a dunce cap if we get a C.

And best of all, we don’t have any stupid test pep rallies, a bizarre phenomenon sweeping the nation. Here’s one from a school in Indiana with the teachers performing “Test Me Maybe,” a parody of, well do I really have to explain that one?

Nope, here in Bamako we don’t spend a minute of energy composing high stakes test-related songs. Here’s part of a test rap song I found online, this one written for Florida’s high-stakes test, the FCAT:

Alright, now I know y’all hate the FCAT
But ya got pass that
So you don’t mess around and get held back
Let’s do somethin’ about that

Say I’m gonna pass the FCAT
You need to pass the FCAT
We need to pass the FCAT
Whatcha all know, gonna blast that

Y’all really wanna know about the FCAT
Whatcha need to know to try and pass that
Why listen up close I’m ‘splaining that
How to do good on the FCAT

I know ya’ll know where the lie-berry’s at
And most ya’ll seems to got a backpack
So you gots the books so you can study that
Got to put in work to pass that.

Gosh I hope those Florida kids do well on the grammar portions of the FCAT.

I’m also pleased that at AISB we have no high-stakes testing flash mobs. I know you’re thinking I made that one up. Nope. Here’s one from a school in Missouri.

We also don’t have to bribe our students to do well on the test with rewards, such as a limo ride to the Golden Corral buffet, a post-test dance party, or making the principal kiss a pig. In this video a teacher explains how his students can “win some awesome prizes for rocking the FCAT,” including iPads and flat screen TVs.

Geez, all of this testapalooza stuff sounds funny at first–until you realize how really sad it is. At least all of those activities are supported by loads of research proving their effectiveness, and students are sure to look back fondly on these activities as some of their favorite school memories. Okay, not really.

The upside of being cured of test-mania disorder is that I have plenty of time to….wait for it….TEACH! Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like a free-for-all here at school. We abide by international academic benchmarks and a set of school beliefs that brazenly encourage resourcefulness, creativity and self-expression. That’s a bit of a departure from my previous world where we were encouraged to be dependent, robotic, dullards. As radical as it sounds, here we are actually entrusted to use our own talents and expertise to create lessons that meet these guidelines. I’m thinking Dr. Scuffy’s head would explode if she ever visited our school.

So, in the interest of preventing cranial explosions, I’d like to dedicate my big finale to Sgt. Scuffy and her band of bothers. Here is what happens when an educator goes through high-stakes testing detox and lands in a magical (albeit dusty) world where creativity and critical thinking are valued more than high-stakes test scores. Welcome to my classroom…..

Anti-Malaria Man to the Rescue
If there’s one thing my partner Jamey taught me, it’s that science should be cool (he once bleached his hair in class to teach his students about re-dox reactions). So I had my kids write and illustrate (in French and English) a graphic novel about malaria, a disease that infects up to 2 million people a year in Mali.P3012110 It’s a story about the superhero Anti-Malaria Man (with leotards and boots and the whole outfit thing) that teaches about malaria transmission, treatment, and prevention. Our PTO funded the printing and next week we distribute copies to local school children in a poor community near our school. My kids learned multiple science benchmarks, created a smashing plot, became fantastic illustrators, and will never look at a mosquito in the same way again. Check out the finished product: Adventures of AMM (English)

Cool School Rules
IMG_1488Rather than bore students on the first day of school with a laundry list of rules they must IMG_1487follow (no teasing the school tortoises, no touching Niger River water

without gloves, etc.) I allowed them to take the lead. I taught them about artist Keith Haring, and how his simple drawings communicated complex messages. I challenged teams of students to create a Haring-style poster–using mostly illustration–that encouraged positive behavior. Our director had these duplicated and put up around school.

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My Face is Green
The best way to get to know my students is to first see how they view themselves. So I introduced them to artist Andy Warhol, and how he used unconventional artistic methods to portray celebrities. Students created their own Warhol-style portraits, expressing their personality through color they applied to a black and white photo of themselves. Then they wrote an artist’s statement to explain their crazy artistic decisions. I’m hoping to one day sell these for millions, just like Mr. Warhol did.

warhol

It’s Vocabulary Instruction, Not Waterboarding
In my student days, vocabulary instruction began with a new list of random words from the teacher on Monday, finding definitions in the dictionary Tuesday, writing sentences using each word Wednesday and Thursday, and a spelling test on Friday. If we missed a word we had to write it 10 times. I’m sure my teachers found these techniques right out of the “How to Make Language Arts Torture” handbook.

In my class, our vocabulary words are taken directly from the novel we are reading—a couple of words each day from the chapters we are about to read. I select words that are key to the story and that will be useful to them in their own life. Students create a 3-column chart (word, definition, sketch). I read them the passage in the book that contains each word, and student teams use context clues to determine the definition. Then they make a quick sketch that will remind them of the definition. Finally, each day I check their understanding of the words by having them create a tableau (frozen pose) showing the definition of the word I say. tableauThey might each individually do a tableau at the same time, or they might work in a team to create a tableau. Every day they beg me to let them do “just one more” tableau. I can’t recall begging my teacher to please let me look up “just one more word in the dictionary.”

Cubist Character Portraits
After reading the novel Shiloh and focusing on identifying character traits, I gave the students a quick overview of Cubism, the early 20th-century art style from where objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form, and where the artist depicts the subject from multiple viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context (thank you Wikipedia). cubismThen I asked them to choose one character from Shiloh and create a cubist portrait. It was certainly a challenge to represent the character traits in a more abstract way, and required a through understanding of the physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of a character. They also explained their portrait in a written artist’s statement, which made their seemingly bizarre artistic decisions seem a tad less bizarre. Sometimes.

Abstractly Speaking
After a unit on the Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S. during WWII, students chose from three poems written by prisoners from the camps. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter analyzing the type of emotion the poet expressed, I gave the students a quick Abstract 101 lesson, showing them how the artists used only shape, line, and color to express emotions. Then students then created an abstract piece of art that visually expressed the emotions in the poem they chose. After this experience, I’m pretty sure these kids will never stand in front of an abstract painting at a museum and say, “That’s stupid. Anyone could paint that.”

It’s Alive!
It’s one thing to read a novel, but another to live it. With story dramatization the kids act out a scene from a novel we just read, taking on the role of not only humans, but also doors, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdogs, trees, and caves. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore we begin we discuss the scene—the motives of the characters, the part of the plot where we are at, “what’s between the lines.” Then as I narrate, they create dialogue and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAaction that brings the scene to life. They can add or tweak the dialogue and action in the text, as long as they stay true to the plot. And everyone speaks, even doors and caves. Can’t tell you how much I enjoy hearing the lines that inanimate objects come up with (Cave wall: I wish that guy would stop chipping off pieces of me with a hammer and just find that hidden door!”)

Human Geometry
To make sure students could thoroughly identify a dozen or so geometric shapes–OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbecause you never know when you might need to know the characteristics of a triangular prism–students walked around campus identifying and sketching the shapes they saw in the architecture and landscape (real question from that day: “Mr. Fessler, I’m drawing the guard’s head since it’s either a sphere or a cube.”). Back in the classroom they worked in a team to create various geometric shapes using only their bodies. I would definitely have sprained my back doing the moves they did.

A Picture Paints 1000 (or more) Words
In every academic subject I had students analyze visual art (paintings and sculpture) that connected to the topic. We looked at Paul Klee’s painting Fish Magic to deeper understand the concept of “magic,” something we were exploring in the novel The Wish Giver. We looked at African mudcloth and Navajo rugs to understand symmetry in math. We analyzed illustrations from the Odyssey to understand Greek mythology. In writing class we looked at Monet’s impressionistic masterpieces from Giverny to see how simple paint strokes and color can speak volumes—just like a few choice descriptive words can create an amazing essay. Of course I invested a little time upfront to teach them about the elements of art so they had the tools to analyze, but it paid off in the end. I now have a roomful of art critics who can talk about one painting for an entire period if I let them.

A Song in Our Heart
Just as I did with visual art, I never passed by an opportunity to have the kids listen to and analyze a song connected to a topic or concept in class. From the most basic level (Schoolhouse Rock videos on conjunctions and adverbs) to the more complex (comparing and contrasting the themes in Christina Aguelira’s song Beautiful and our novel Loser; identifying science fiction subgenres in the Carpenters’ song Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft and Ella Fitzgerald’s song Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer and comparing those with the subgenre of our novel The Forgotten Door), music brought more life and learning into our classroom. Plus I’ve expanded their musical knowledge/appreciation beyond Gangnam Style.

Classmates Across the Sea
As a teacher in Florida my students collaborated on a project with kids in Northern Ireland and Zambia. This year, working with my good pals at Blue Planet Writers’ Room, my students in Mali are collaborating with students in North Palm Beach, Florida. We’ve explored the concepts of community and peace through writing and art, and will soon have a live chat between the classes IF the Skype gods smile down upon us.

Multiple Intelligences in Living (water)Color
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter teaching a unit on multiple intelligences, each student created twoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA watercolor portraits, one of a famous person they admire and another that was a self-portrait. Both had to include symbols expressing the multiple intelligences of the painting’s subject. The word “multiple” was so fitting for these projects as we had multiple spills of water across nearly-finished portraits, multiple instances of paint drops landing on another person’s portrait, and multiple times when I said, “WHY oh why did I choose watercolors for this project?”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And that’s just a glimpse into my high-stakes-test-free classroom. Whenever I did this kind of teaching in America it was always done covertly with my eye out the window, watching for the test prep police. Now I’ve come out of the closet….as a creative teacher whose not afraid to inspire my students, not afraid to step outside of the box, and not afraid to trust my own expertise.

I think I’m still afraid of zombies though, especially ones wearing super scuffy shoes.

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

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

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

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

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

loose leaf tea

photo from tealeafreview.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiss my grots.

Kiss my grits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • London punks spit on you if you take their picture

    192 London

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

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

167 Nice

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

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

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

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

PatrioticHorse11-01-300

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bamako-city-centre-market

Shopping in Bamako….

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

Shopping in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 20: Feelin’ Hot, Hot, Dead

Spring has sprung, all 110 degrees of it.

Spring has sprung, all 110 degrees of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sahara Desert, or my forehead in h

The Sahara Desert, or my forehead in hot season?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only viable outdoor option during hot/dry season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our cat Zil Zil shuns the sun.

Our cat Zil Zil shuns the sun.

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

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

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

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

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Here the orange dust waits patiently before entering our home.

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

Clothes and shoe dye, otherwise known as orange dirt roads

Clothes and shoe dye, otherwise known as orange dirt roads

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

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

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

he would totally disappear into the scenery here.

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

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

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

heatwave

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

Chapter 17: Is This Blog About: (a) Peri-urban Slums, (b) Malaria, (c) Multiple-Choice Questions, or (d) All of the Above?

bazin smoke

Don’t worry about those toxic fumes kids, just smile for the camera please.

No doubt about it, field trips make teachers as gleeful as the students. I mean c’mon, what educator doesn’t enjoy a break from the routine, a glimpse of the world outside of those classroom walls, an occasion for the “real world” to be the teacher, an opportunity to get to know a different side of your students, and a perfect chance to “lose” a student you don’t particularly care for (“Seriously Principal Jones, I really have no idea how Timmy got locked inside that ancient Egyptian sarcophagus in the museum.”)

peek

Field trips give us a peek inside the real world.

So it’s just utterly depressing that field trips in the U.S. are becoming as rare as a third grader without a cell phone. There was a time when field trips were a normal part of the curriculum, as routine as those bad baby showers in the school library where I always chipped in to buy “ones-ies” for some teacher I hadn’t said two words to in three years (and I still don’t know what “ones-ies” are).

Smoking in school and triangular sideburns have fallen out of fashion.

Smoking in school and triangular sideburns have fallen out of fashion.

But now field trips have mostly gone the way of the dodo bird and recess and smoking in the teacher’s lounge…even though field trips can be an important part of the curriculum.

Now granted field trips didn’t always appear on the surface to be related to the curriculum, but scout’s honor they were. Growing up in rural Illinois, I recall yearly trips in junior high to the Six Flags amusement park in St. Louis, Missouri where we would ingest as much fat and sugar as possible before riding an upside-down roller coaster and discovering just how the body’s digestive system does/doesn’t work.

Junior High trip to Six Flags

Junior High trip to Six Flags, where the back of the bus was the place to be.

Or how one could use an umbrella and a wad of gum to rescue coins from the fountain and finance another trip to the sno-cone cart. Or how certain chemicals in Mountain Dew can remove the vomit smell from your clothes. Or how certain forces, maybe evil ones, can allow your spit to travel in many directions on spinning rides. These valuable life lessons have stayed with me for years.bus

I can remember going on plenty of non-vomiting field trips too. We once visited New Salem State Historic Site near Springfield, IL, a reconstruction of the village where Abe Lincoln spent his early adulthood.

Boiling a classmate on our New Salem field trip

Me (right) and several others boil a classmate on our New Salem field trip.

I can still remember asking the guide what they sold at the general store back in Abe’s day. She said, simply, “A lot of liquor.” And our two teachers tried to secretly give each other the thumbs-up sign except we all saw them. So history for me has always had positive, liquor-related connotations. Now excuse me while I go study Samuel Adams six to twelve more times.

Photo: ©2012 Linda Hall Library

Photo: ©2012 Linda Hall Library

There were plenty of other field trips too. In high school we went to the movie theatre to see the rerelease of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet—you know the one where we see Romeo’s butt and Juliet’s boobies for a millisecond each? Of course back at school those were the only milliseconds of this 138-minute film we could recall in vivid detail.romeo

In elementary school we visited the potato chip factory where we all decided we would work one day since we figured the workers ate as many free chips as they wanted. We also went to art museums where I remember our 4th grade selves sprawling on the ground to look up the dress of a realistic sculpture of a woman and getting a quick anatomy lesson.

Oregon Industries slides.Photo: Original Collection: Visual Instruction Department Lantern Slides

Oregon Industries slides.
Photo: Original Collection: Visual Instruction Department Lantern Slides

I also remember a fantastic college field trip to Toronto where we came up with redesign plans for the urban waterfront to make it more pedestrian friendly, toured the city to see cutting-edge urban design work, and watched Canadian Border guards use a drug-sniffing dog to find pot in one of my classmate’s guitar case. Good times.

Drug sniffing dog finds what it's looking for in our classmate's luggage. And it's not dog biscuits.

Drug sniffing dog finds what it’s looking for in our classmate’s guitar case. And it’s not sheet music.

But these days, school is all about that damn high-stakes test in the spring. If a school activity doesn’t involve a multiple-choice question or a fact that can be memorized and regurgitated, it’s not seen as valuable. Never mind that not a shred of evidence supports this drill-and-kill nightmare approach to “instruction.” And never mind that it numbs kids’ brains and makes them hate school. It’s enough to drive a teacher to drink. Or at least take a field trip that supports that habit.winesMy old school district back in Florida actually had an official “blackout period” in the months preceding the state test–no field trips, no guest speakers, no sending teachers out of the school for professional development. What WAS allowed was having kids sit bored in their classrooms answering multiple-choice questions to prepare for the state test that’s comprised of multiple-choice questions. On that note, I’ve got a question for people who believe that approach makes sense:

1. Why are multiple choice tests stupid?

a. They lead kids to believe that there is just one “right” answer to every question.

b. Kids can answer correctly without actually thinking or problem solving or even reading the question.

c. They give kids no way to apply the knowledge they have learned.

d. They purposely include “distracter” answers that are wrong or confusing, like “none of the above” or “all of the above.”

e. All of the above.

absolut

Point me in the direction of the free samples!

But seriously, what moron doesn’t understand the benefits of a field trip? Would you rather read a worksheet about chocolate production, or pay a visit to the Snickers factory? Analyze a report on the effects of alcohol on your short-term memory, or participate in some experiments at the Absolut headquarters? Memorize the process of human reproduction or….oh well, I think you get the picture.

Now that I’ve escaped that madness by leaving the country, I have a new appreciation for the power of field trips, especially as they relate to service learning. This is one educational trend that doesn’t suck at all. Basically service learning means that you involve students in a community service project that also incorporates one or more academic areas. They learn academic skills, help their community, and hopefully understand that they can make a difference in this world by stepping away from the PlayStation.

So with the wind back in my sails in a brand new non-test-obsessed school, I’ve partnered my class with a U.S.-based, non-profit organization here in Bamako called Mali Health whose mission is to “empower impoverished urban communities in Mali to transform maternal and child health sustainably.” As far as mission statements go, that’s a biggie because the situation here in Mali is just darn scary. For starters:

  • life expectancy in Mali averages 49 years
  • 93% of Malians live in poor, urban communities (AKA slums)
  • Mali is one of the 15 poorest countries in the world
  • 1 in 5 children dies before age 5
  • 1 in 3 children are underweight
  • 1 out of 22 women die from maternal complications

A month or so ago Mali Health did a short presentation at our school that really piqued my students’ interest. They were especially interested in the fact that the communities Mali Health serve have no sewage systems, plumbing, or electricity. And as usual they dwelled on bathroom-related questions, such as:

  • So the people poop in holes? (affirmative)
  • Does it smell? (affirmative)
  • Does it ever leak out? (yes, and contaminating nearby wells)
  • Who cleans out the holes when they get full? (someone is lowered in, and he shovels it out)
  • Do they use toilet paper? (varies)
  • Do they have flat screen TVs in their latrines? (OK, I just made that one up, but I’m sure they were thinking this)

    A latrine under construction in Sikoro. Photo: ©Sikoro Teriw - www.sikoro-mali.org

    A latrine under construction in Sikoro. Photo: ©Sikoro Teriw – http://www.sikoro-mali.org

Working with their energetic young director we decided that my students would create graphic novels (the fancy name for comic books) that teach about malaria prevention—but in an entertaining way that would engage kids.mosquito

Malaria is a big problem in sub Saharan Africa, especially this year. Most of the teachers and students at my school have fancy mosquito nets over their beds, have plenty of mosquito spray in a variety of scents and consistencies (I prefer Off Smooth & Dry Powder Formula), Offand take weekly preventative malaria medication. If we do get malaria it is easily treatable with a 3-day course of pills that cost $7 at the pharmacy (no prescriptions required for meds here). For most of us malaria is nothing more than flu-like symptoms that go away quickly with the meds.

But the folks in these impoverished communities don’t have these luxuries, though I doubt many Americans consider a can of Off Bug Spray a luxury. A doctor visit and malaria meds would cost a Malian about $10 total—or about 10% of a skilled worker’s average salary here. Quite a few organizations do donate mosquito nets.

Our mosquito net in its upright position; at night it encloses us in a netty cube

Our mosquito net in its upright position; at night it encloses us in a netty cube.

But tightly woven nets keep out mosquitoes AND breezes—not exactly a plus in an oven-like climate—so they are used as fishing nets or room dividers or bridal veils (which totally sounds like an episode of Project Runway or Design Star).

On top of everything else, because malaria is common and can go away on its own, folks here don’t consider it a big deal, even though it can actually kill them if left untreated.

So the plan is for my kids to create these books to help create awareness about this illness, and Mali Health will distribute them to local school children. Since these local kids either speak Bambara (their first language) or French (taught in schools here) my students will first write their text in English, then translate it into French. Thankfully our AISB French teachers will assist. My French language skills, while improving, are still in the Tonto-sounding phase (“Me happy big feast tonight Ke-mo Sah-bee.”)

The great part is that while my students are creating something that can potentially save lives, they are practicing their reading, writing, science, and French skills in a real world way that doesn’t require a single photocopied worksheet or multiple-choice question. I tried this approach once back in the States, where four years ago I had my students create PSAs to encourage people to spay and neuter their pets. Long story short, the Humane Society of the United States put them on DVDs and sent them to shelters nationwide, and the Humane Society still has a link to them on their website (see link at bottom of that page). Here are two of the PSAs:

To get the ball rolling we decided a field trip to the Mali Health office would be in order so that my students could receive background information on malaria transmission and prevention from the experts. So the director put together a full morning of activities and a week ago we headed to Sikoro, a peri-urban slum on the outskirts of Bamako with 80,000 residents (peri-urban, a word I just learned too, means this was once a rural area that has become urbanized). Over 90% of Mali’s population lives in poor urban communities like Sikoro.

IMG_2521

Looking down on Bamako (literally, not figuratively).

Aside from the obvious fact that this is a slum, I have to say that the locale is fabulous! The community begins at the bottom of a very large hill and climbs right up the side, all the way to the top. So like the hillside shanty towns in Rio de Janiero, Brazil with gorgeous viewsover the city, Sikoro gives you amazing views over Bamako.

But the roads in there, wow. Our two school vans struggled to navigate the steep dirt paths, full of giant craters and gullies, strewn with trash, and filled with people going every which way.

IMG_2509

Zak and Jade present our class donation to Devon, director of Mali Health.

The Mali Health office, a simple structure with rooms open to the outside, was our first stop. There we presented Devon, the director, with a donation of funds our class raised running two booths at our school Halloween carnival. Devon and Matt gave a short but kind of scary presentation on malaria that will forever make me keep the mosquito net canopy tight over the bed while I live in West Africa, or maybe anywhere in the world except for Antarctica.

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Matt at Mali Health gives us the scoop on mosquitoes.

Next we walked/hiked up and up and up rambling roads to Bandiagara Coura Elementary School, one of the local schools in Sikoro and one of the potential audiences for our malaria prevention graphic novel. Again, a fantastic locale on a hilltop that, in an alternative universe, would be the perfect setting for a luxury hotel or my sprawling mansion (hey, a teacher can dream, can’t he?).

Daredevil sheep.

Daredevil goat.

But instead here sat the school, several unpainted, concrete block rectangles comprised of three or so side-by-side classrooms. There were no doors. Above each doorway someone had quickly hand-painted the grade level. The classrooms were no more than 12 by 12 feet with dirt floors and a single window opening without glass or a screen. There was no electricity, hence no lights. Thirty kids sat scrunched together at little wooden desk/bench combos meant for about half that many. A piece of plywood painted black was nailed to the front wall and covered with chalked on French sentences.

When U.S. teachers complain about crowded classrooms, I'll whip out this photo.

When U.S. teachers complain about crowded classrooms, I’ll whip out this photo.

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No books, pencils, or floor.

IMG_2527

My tongue-tied students.

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Q&A with the school’s director.

The crazy thing is that this is a PRIVATE school that has better conditions than the public schools (which kids have to pay to attend too, just not as much). To attend this private school these kids pay anywhere from $5.00 to $18.00/month. It doesn’t sound like much, but remember a skilled worker here makes a whopping average of $100/month. So having a few kids in school could wipe out a big chunk of your salary.

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I prop myself up against a tree after hiking the steep roads.

DSC_0045

My students mix in. Well, kind of.

It was the first time I saw my students speechless. Really, they couldn’t even think of one question to ask the kids in the classroom. My vision was that this part of the visit was going to be a dynamic, back-and-forth conversation between my kids and the Bandiagara Coura kids, discovering that even though they were from vastly different worlds they were all just kids when it came down to it. Nuh-uh. Now it looked like the rich kids ogling the poor kids, and vice versa.

bagami

The bakery in our school lobby.

I suppose I understand their reticence though. After all, we had just left our expansive 18-month-old school overlooking the Niger River, with LCD projectors and classroom sets of MacBook computers and a bakery shop in our lobby and our classroom with 6 ceiling fans and sliding windows on three sides and a floor plan that is so huge for the 18 of us that I have room for an acting area, a library area, round tables for student seating, a teacher zone, a walk in closet, a computer area. And where I recently put in a work order because I didn’t think the AC was quite cool enough. Now, in 15 minutes, we were in the real world–at least as far as Mali is concerned—and the contrast was massive.

For the most part my students come from privileged backgrounds. They travel internationally at least a few times a year. They have maids, gardeners, and drivers. Their parents have great jobs in embassies, big mining companies, or international aid organizations. They mostly are kept far away from places like Sikoro, so I can understand why they were a little tongue-tied as they stared at 30 kids crammed into a room that would fit twice into our own school’s hedge maze garden (yep, we have a hedge maze at school).

IMG_2547

The Malaria Games; like the Hunger Games without the killing.

After some awkward silence my students and the Bandiagara Coura students headed to a nearby dirt play field where the Mali Health staff taught a capture the flag style game. Except this one involved students playing either humans, mosquitoes, or the malaria virus, and the goal was to capture the mosquito eggs (small plastic balls, thank goodness). Together the students kicked up quite the dust storm, but from what I could see (and taste) through the brown fog they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

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Photo: Matt Schinske

Photo: Matt Schinske

Then it was time for another hike, this time back down the hill along more rambling dirt roads. I have to say that up there at the top it didn’t seem so slummy. The small plaster houses with tin roofs were mostly spaced apart on the hillside, kind of reminding me of some rural areas in Greece. You could see for miles over the chaos of Bamako while standing in peace and quiet.

IMG_2557IMG_2553IMG_2550IMG_2554IMG_2518But, as we made our way down and the community grew denser, it felt more like a slum. Since there are no sewage systems, dirty water of some sort trickled down the wrinkles in the dirt road. It did not have a pleasant odor. IMG_2514It pooled here and there into puddles where I am sure Ms. Mosquito and her ten trillion closest friends have a hopping shindig every night, from dusk to dawn. The smell was somewhat intense too, gag-inducing actually, and we all pulled our shirts up over our noses for the better part of tour hike.

Before long we arrived at Sourakabougou Clinic, a tiny public health center for the residents. After a quick talk with the very young head doctor ($250/month salary BTW), we broke up in groups of three to tour the facility, which like the school is a concrete block structure with tiny, un-airconditioned rooms.clinicIMG_2558 One fit only four, old metal twin beds placed side by side which held malaria patients, each with an IV drip in their arm. Another, about half the size of that one, held two metal tables with stirrups—the birthing room. It was a sobering experience for my students who, if they need medical care, usually travel to Paris or the States to very fancy schmancy clinics.

Back in our own classroom the kids were so beat they collapsed into our comfy beanbag chairs (not sure I saw many of those at the Bandiagara Coura school) and I postponed the math test we were going to take. We had walked a lot that day in some pretty intense sun on some pretty crazy paths, and gave our senses quite a workout too (especially our sense of smell).

The kids were exhausted, but they were buzzing (haha) with ideas for our graphic novel about malaria and how they wanted to help the school and the kids in that community. There was talk of a school supply drive and hosting their students at our school for a day. One boy even remarked that today he realized “how lucky he really was.” Another said, “Even though they don’t have very much, they didn’t seem sad at all.”

So to summarize, my students were enlightened about malaria, poverty, community service, and life because

a. they were forced to memorize this information from a textbook at school.

b. they read a passage about this information on a worksheet, then answered five multiple-choice questions.

c. they read this information on Wikipedia.

d. they went on a four-hour field trip.

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Our last stop before returning to school…lunch at the Parc National du Bamako.

Chapter 16: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

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

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

The African hills are alive with the sound of music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 My Favorite Things: Mali Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of one lane, many.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 15: Cause Every Little Thing is Ghana Be Alright

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

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

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

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

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

Pseudo-mall, Accra, Ghana

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

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

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

The Savior finally got his PhD.

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

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

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

Relax, oh tourists. But not with drugs.

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

Big Milly’s bar, front and center.

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

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

…or you’ll be stabbed!

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

Me: Can I bring my camera to the beach?

Ghanaian: No (said without looking up)

Me: Will it get stolen?

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

Me: Really…

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

Me: With weapons?

G: Knives. So is your room okay?

Jamey braves the beach.

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

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

Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat..

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

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

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

Off to Green Turtle Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roadside scenery

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

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

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

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

Me: Poot da what?!?

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

Me: What does that even mean?

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

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

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

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

Finally at the Green Turtle

Empty beach for miles and miles…

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

Our beach home away from home

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

Made me wanna drink more…

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

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

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

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

even looks good in the rain…

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

Me with the village people

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

Our coconut hunters

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

Sand castles and show tunes.

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

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

Toward Kumasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Kumasi

Our guesthouse unit, nestled in a garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Accra

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

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

Hotel decor.

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

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

Accra beach with its big, big seashells

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

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

View from room #2

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

Tae Kwan Do on the beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: AP

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

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

Can I get an “amen?”

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

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

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

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

Roadside mosque outside of Siby, Mali.

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

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

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

baaaaad to the bone

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

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

roadside sheep market

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

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

school sheep, for now; dinner, later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

teachers and student dressed for Tabaski celebrating

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

traditional Malian music kept the mood festive

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

everybody dance now!

Chapter 12: Lebanese Coifs, Phallic Instruments, School Beer

Enjoyed some more “firsts” this week. Actually, now that I think about it, moving from South Florida to a landlocked, developing West African country pretty much means everything we do here will be a “first” for awhile–the first time we saw a pile of smiling sheep heads, the first time we rode with an armed soldier in a taxi, the first time we had explosive diarrhea. Ah, misty water colored memories. Here are a few more firsts…

My First Cut

I had my first haircut in Africa this week. I was worried about this particular grooming regimen because the only “salons” I had noticed were tollbooth-sized wood and tin shacks along the road with hand-painted signs that made them sound much fancier than reality, like “Le Salon des Cheveux Mal Coupée et Traitements Mauvaise Couleur” which translates to something like The Salon of Miscut Hair and Bad Color Jobs.

Random salon in nearby Siby sporting a fancy name and floating head.

Inside these places I could only see dirt floors and a single wooden chair with a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, much like in an interrogation room. And definitely no AC. Or air, really.

So I let my hair get a little longer than usual, which I noticed in the morning when I labored to make my bangs stay flat rather than turn into Shirley Temple curls. It was obvious that I couldn’t put a haircut off any longer. Fortunately our teaching colleague Paul also needed a cut and offered to guide us to the stylist he used, a young fellow from Lebanon with his own salon. Now of course I’m picturing the tin shack without oxygen as we pull into a little courtyard and see a very Americany-looking salon façade, very smartly designed and featuring a sign illustrated with non-African heads with lots of flowing hair and pouty little lips. Inside it was like we were transported to a salon in Anytown, USA. There were ornamental wrought-iron chairs with fancy cushions, a big glass coffee table piled with fashion magazines, hair products galore, and a few Malian salon gals in trendy outfits and coifs gossiping (okay they were speaking in French so I couldn’t tell if it was really gossip, but the tone was definitely gossipy). There was also a flat screen TV showing Men in Black 2 subtitled in Arabic, so it wasn’t exactly like home but close enough.

The 20-something owner spoke a little English (“You want short, no?”) before he went to work on my hair like it was his last day on earth. It was almost all scissor work and he moved in Edward Scissorhands fast motion and, gladly, in a very precise fashion. My hair texture is as fine as fine can be, but somehow he was able to add more texture than I’ve ever had (though one of my students commented the next day, “It looks a little fuzzy.”).

Roadside salon in Bamako.

He cut it short, really short, but I dug it. Next came the scalp massage that Paul said was the reason he keeps coming back to this place. I’ve never had a scalp massage and am not sure I knew there was such a thing, but now I’m hooked like a crack addict. That young Malian shampoo girl worked my head for 20 minutes like it was a glob of bread dough, at one point even taking a call on her cell phone while still using both hands on my scalp (Jamey told me another gal held the phone for her, so it was nothing alien or sinister after all). I’m sure that this vigorous massage caused my brain to develop more than usual and probably made my hair grow stronger. And all of this for just $11.

My First Midnight Music

On Saturday we went with a group of our colleagues for dinner at the French Cultural Center in Bamako, a pleasant little outdoor courtyard space with a metal detecting security checkpoint at the door. For the first time in 52 days we were in a space entirely filled with non-Africans. That was just weird and totally made us feel non-special so we ate fast to get the hell out of there to someplace where we would again stand out from the crowd. Actually we ate quickly because there was a concert next door we were attending by a Malian musician named Habib Koite. He and his band have toured the world many times, and he even played on Bonnie Raitt’s latest album. He is one of Mali’s most loved and most famous performers so we were psyched as ever to be attending our first Malian concert (see video below).

As we discovered when we started researching Mali a year ago, this country is known for its amazing musicians and really cool instruments like the kora, a 21 to 24 stringed banjo-harpish instrument that has a gourd body held at crotch level while you hold the neck out and away from your body (I know what you’re thinking and yes it does kinda look like that).

Is that a kora in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Also the bala, which is like a xylophone except made from many little gourds, and the n’taman (also called the talking drum) that is held up by your shoulder and played with one curved mallet and your hand and changes tone somehow. Finally we would see all of this in one fell swoop. Just one teensy problem though. This concert was slated to start at the exact time we are usually crawling into bed. And Malian musicians are known to start late and play for a loooong time. If there

Dried gourds never sounded so good.

was Red Bull in Mali I would have had a few (six packs) to prepare.

The auditorium in the French Cultural Center is a beautiful place (you know how those French people are about architecture). It was very intimate–we were no more than a few yards from the stage. Habib Koite made his entrance, head full of tiny dreadlocks and a smile that lit up the place. Then he talked and joked for a while. Kind of a long while. In French. When he would say something and the crowd would chuckle, we of course chuckled right along. “Ha ha ha,” I’d say to Jamey. “That Habib is quite the jokester” as I looked around to see if anyone could tell we were faking it. The crowd was an even mix of ex-pats and Malians, including some VIPs, such as the Minister of Tourism (who I’m guessing doesn’t have a whole lot to keep him busy in these post-coup days) and the French ambassador.

Habib Koite

Habib started playing an acoustic guitar around 9:30 when I am normally entering into REM sleep and dreaming that I am flying over Paris or walking naked through a church. Thank goodness his playing was amazing–it took my breath away for a second and made me forget all about slumber. He sang with this deep, rich, throaty tone that almost didn’t sound real, and it gave us the chills. Then his band members came on stage one-by-one and started to play their instruments. Good so far—lots of action and interest and gorgeous world music (sort of a mix of African, jazz, and pop) to keep us alert. And it got better! On the second song a young lady popped out onto stage in traditional bazin dress and did African dancing to the music. I guess it’s redundant to say “African” dancing since she is African and she was dancing. Really any dancing she does would be considered African dancing now that I think about it. But nevertheless, it was a visual and auditory treat and the last thing I was thinking about was dozing.

But the music and the bantering with the audience in French went on for quite some time. Jamey’s head began to lower towards his lap during hour two (11:30 PM) and I found myself needing to bounce to the music in a very exaggerated way to keep the blood flowing and my tiredness from taking over. I was sure the people around me thought I was having some sort of attack.

Habib Koite and his band Bamada

There was a non-African woman in front of us recording the concert on an iPad, and annoying as that was, the bright light from that device did keep my senses alert. But as it got later even that couldn’t keep my very heavy lids from dropping and dropping. Finally near midnight Caroline, our school’s director and our ride, gave the “let’s go” signal and we snuck out the back. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that music and enjoyed this authentic Malian experience immensely. It was just really, really late with no end in sight. I’m thinking that concert could still be going on even now, 2 days later.

My First Assistant

For the first time ever, I received a fulltime classroom assistant last week since my student population has “ballooned” to 16. I’m the talk of the school for coping with this ungodly crowded classroom–which of course seems like a cakewalk compared to the 24 to 35 kids that were crammed in my classroom in Florida over the past 15 years. My new assistant is a young man originally from Ghana and with a great sense of humor. He is very Christian (he worked that into the conversation fairly quickly, plus he was reading Bible verses on the computer) which makes him a bit of an anomaly here in this very Muslim country. But que sera sera, I say. I was just happy for the extra help, regardless of which holy book he followed.

Now Jamey and I have not made any big announcements about being a couple, but anyone with a functioning brain could probably figure this out without much trouble–even a very religious person whose faith teaches them that we are sinning freaks of nature who will burn in hell. So I was wondering how long it would be before this became a topic of discussion with my assistant. Well, we made it to recess on Day 1 before the old “So can I ask you a question?” happened.

Sir Elton provides background music during my awkward discussion.

An Elton John song was playing on my iTunes, which I thought was appropriate. “Sure, anything,” I replied as I mouthed the words to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. “Are you married?” he asked.

That’s a tricky question to answer actually. After being a couple for 26 years we did travel to Iowa this summer, one of the states that allows same gender marriage, and tie the knot. So yes, we are married. However the federal government doesn’t recognize this, probably because preventing gay marriage is much more of an urgent and important issue than ending the war in Afghanistan or getting the economy back on track. Which means we still have to file income tax as a single people, losing all the benefits a married couple get. So I answered, “Yes and no” and decided that if he was going to be in my classroom all day he might as well know the whole story. I summarized (which just happens to be the reading skill I’m working on with the students) in the most neutral way possible. Throughout my explanation he continued looking at his computer screen, probably searching frantically for a biblical passage about stoning to death men who are married in Midwestern states.

A few minutes passed, a Lady Gaga song came on iTunes—sort of sealing the deal—and he said, “Now who did you say you were married to?” That was my favorite sentence of the day. But believe it or not we got along swimmingly for the rest of the day. I’m sure we are his first personal contact with an actual gay couple, so maybe we can rid him of the stereotypes he has about gay people. Note to self: Give Gaga, Sir Elton John, and show tunes a rest for a while.

My First Alcohol at a School

School beer just tastes better.

After that experience I needed a drink, and I didn’t have to go far! Our faculty was invited to the school library Friday afternoon to meet the new board members, and a whole table of food and alcohol was waiting for us. It’s odd drinking a beer in the very spot where I checked out some resource books on earthquakes just hours earlier. But I enjoyed it very much. And the brownies too because nothing goes together like beer and chocolate. The new board at our school is great, primarily parents along with a representative from the U.S. Embassy. As I imbibed I was chatting up a board member whose daughter is in my class. He and his wife–who is second in command at the American Embassy–are an Indian-American/Asian-American couple with two really smart daughters (stereotypically an obvious statement I suppose).

Interestingly, coasters are used on top of glasses here, to keep flies out of your beer.

I asked him if his daughter liked my class. He said he knew things were going to be just fine when she came home the first day and said, ‘My teacher put a pen under his nose like a moustache and spoke in a French accent!” Hope they shared that one with the ambassador….

Chapter 11: Just Cross Over the Crevasse on the Spindly Tree Branches Precariously Positioned There

When we lived in West Palm Beach, we were always so thankful to the Jews this time of year since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meant days off from school. As luck would have it we also had Friday off here in Bamako, although it was for non-Jewish reasons. The Malians celebrate their 52nd year of independence from France September 22, though I’m happy to report that French bakeries are still thriving here, as is the French language (though after I continue to labor through those Rosetta Stone lessons I’m not sure if that is a plus or not).

So with a day off we decided to let our hair down and join a group of our teaching colleagues on an overnight outing to southern Mali, about 50 kilometers from Bamako. It was close to here that the Empire of Mali was born in the 13th century. Among the hilly woodlands there are about 20 villages with some dating back to the Middle Ages, which make my former “historic district” neighborhood from the 1920s seem like chopped liver. It’s also home to the beautiful Arch of Kamadjan, a massive natural stone arch at the top of a stony hill.

The Arch of Kamadjan, seen from far, far away

Legend has it that a king cut the arch into the hill using his sword. I am sure Paul Bunyan and Ironman also assisted as this baby is massive. I was sure it would collapse on the day we decided to picnic underneath it, but I’m still here typing so you know that didn’t happen.

I purposely avoided asking a lot of details about this trip since many of my colleagues are very active, sporty types who opt for really adventury-ish type things that we tend to, um how do I say this, not do ever. Seriously, we thought we were pretty wild last week staying up to 10PM on a school night watching two Mike & Molly repeats on a Saudi Arabian channel. I did think I overheard someone mention that we were staying in “huts,” or maybe, I reasoned, we were going to be eating at a Pizza HUT. Sure, that was it.

We decided to drive our newly acquired Honda CR-V that our Malian mechanic Bill (that name can’t be real) just finished working on, fixing the AC (woo hoo!), replacing filters and fluids and whatever, and best of all throwing in matching sporty black and red (with flame motif) seat covers, steering wheel cover, and seat belt shoulder pads. If we were teenage boys in the U.S. in 1985 we would be SO popular right about now. Bill even Armor All’d the dash, so we felt ready to conquer the world.

Mooooove you darn cows!

We set out in a caravan of 3 vehicles at 10AM Friday morning, with a quick stop at the travel agency to pay for our tickets to Ghana for fall break next month. We appeared to be the only non-black people on the streets of this city of 2 million people so we were a bit of a spectacle. Since Jamey and I haven’t left Bamako since we arrived 44 days ago it was quite interesting to see how different it looked outside of the city proper. There were 4-lane highways with a concrete median, almost like we would see back home. Well except there was an occasional random donkey or long-horned steer standing on the concrete median in the middle of all that speeding traffic. And guys walking into the highway with what I thought were plastic tennis rackets except they were electrified devices for zapping flies (note to self: buy one of these for our roof deck ASAP). And there really aren’t “lanes” of traffic per se. While there are painted lines in the center these are ignored and sometimes there is just one big lane and sometimes they create 3 or 4 lanes when the motos squeeze in there (BTW, our group discussed what we saw the moto drivers carrying and this included: a stack of 10 chairs, two pelicans—which I might add are not birds that live within 1000 miles of Bamako, and a stack of tires with the driver playing the peg of a ring toss game).

No Photo Shop involved!

Our waterfall destination

As we got further out of town the road became just 2 lanes (or so) and the landscape opened up to reveal magnificently green fields punctuated by massive orange and grey rock hills that look like they just popped up randomly out of the ground. Jamey offered a scientific explanation but I was distracted by something shiny in the distance and I can’t remember what he said. These hills don’t gently rise. They abruptly jut from the ground and their faces show crazy patterns and shapes. As we got close to our overnight accommodations we saw a waterfall cascading over the top of one of these outcroppings and were told we would be swimming under this, just like Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins in Blue Lagoon!

We drove off of the main road onto a rutted clay “road” not unlike the one we live on in Bamako. But this was lined with mud brick buildings (surely not like the “huts” we would be staying in, I was thinking) and lots of rural villagers who stared at us and smiled and waved when we waved.

Huts-Are-Us

A half mile down the road, through a field with donkeys grazing, was the entrance to our encampment, Centre Culturel Bougu Saba, which I believe means “huts without running water.” The French owner threw open the metal gates which were framed by fuchsia bougainvillea, and we all drove in. It was actually beautiful—rustic, but picturesque. There were indeed a series of mud brick huts with thatched roofs and doors painted with African figures. But they were charming. Inside each were two beds canopies of mosquito netting, mosaic tile floors, and an overhead fan. The rest of the compound included a little bar and covered eating area, a large open-air multipurpose area with huge peaked thatched roof and carved wood pillars, and a bathroom area with composting toilets (you can Google it).

It also included privately walled but open air showers that curiously did not include a shower head . This is because you ladle water from a big blue 55-gallon drum into a bucket, carry the bucket into your mosaic-tiled shower area, and use a plastic mug to pour water over you as you shower. It sounds labor intensive but I have to say it was a delightful experience doing this at 6AM this morning as the sun rose and the birds serenaded me with some crazy birdcalls. The water and the air were refreshing, even though I stressed a bit deciding if I had scooped enough water to condition my hair as well as shampoo it too (don’t worry, I had just enough water to do both).

Under the spreading mango tree

We didn’t dawdle here at the compound very long as we had a full agenda for Friday, an agenda neither Jamey or I even knew the details of, and this as I explained earlier was on purpose. Our first inkling that this was going to be an adventury type day was when they told us to not bring our vehicle as it doesn’t have 4-wheel drive. So we jumped into the other manlier vehicles and took off to the arch for a picnic lunch. Unlike the St. Louis arch, this stone arch is not close to convenient parking nor does it have an elevator to get to the top. So we first rode up a clay pathway that were even more rutted than the road we live on in Bamako, if that’s even possible, where an occasional moto would appear coming at us around a sharp turn. We really looked like bobble head dolls in the car and I am very thankful I didn’t have to pee during this ride.

Just a little picnic lunch on a cliff

About halfway up our colleague driver stopped and said there was a trail at this point and we could continue riding in the air-conditioned SUV or we could walk the rest of the way. That’s like asking me if I’d rather have a Coke or a cup of glass shards dipped in rat poison. Two occupants opted for the walk and I’ll give you a hint that they weren’t from Florida. Once we reached the final stop for the vehicles I couldn’t see any stone arch cut by a magical sword. That’s because we needed to HIKE to it, and that’s a word that Jamey and I shy away from. because when we went on a little HIKE in Thailand it actually ended up being 6 hours through 100 degree, mosquito-infested, muddy jungle on steep slippery trails, and then we ended up in a remote village sleeping in a hut where I smelled campfire smoke all night (see last blog post about my aversion to campfire smoke, and no I wasn’t a Boy Scout obviously).

Under the arch (which did not fall on us)

This was no 6-hour Thailand hike thankfully, just a 10 minute climb up a rocky path. And plus one of our colleagues was on the trail with her baby in a backpack thing, so I figured if she can do it my lazy old self surely could too. When we got to the top it was certainly worth the expense of energy; the sweeping view was magnificent. We could see the flat plains which are lime green during this rainy season time of the year, dotted with lollipop shaped trees in a darker green. Then we could see the rocky hills jutting out of the ground in various spots, along with tiny villages here and there. We were in the shade on a flat rock ledge immediately below the stone arch, and it was here that we have our picnic lunch! Peanut butter and jelly on freshly baked baguettes never tasted better. We even had Pringles (hello 1985 again), some almonds (I figured that was a healthy-looking option to counteract the Pringles), chocolate chip cookies, bananas, apples, and Evian water. The others seemed to stand precariously close to the edge while chatting with each. Jamey and I hugged the rock wall as tightly as possible as we ate.

Crazy rock outcroppings caused by erosion

While we ate I noticed a group of boys gathered a few meters away (I’m trying to get into the whole metric thing they use here, so bear with me). They basically were watching us like we were putting on a play. Our colleagues who had been here before said this always happens, and that if you are a rural villager watching our antics is like watching a sitcom. They stayed with us throughout the day, along with their strong scent of body odor.

After lunch we had some options: rock climbing, hiking, or watching the rock climbers. Obviously the last option sounded attractive to us, but a colleague said it was just a short romp on an easy trail to get to the TOP of the arch where the view was even MORE impressive. We thought that sounded good and followed them to the “easy trail” that didn’t seem to be a trail at all, but areas of 4-foot tall grasses that surely were hiding various species of poisonous African snakes and such. But we kept moving on. Then it was up a mini-cliff of sharp rocks that didn’t seem to be secure, and up another little cliff that required us to wedge our shoe into tiny notches on a branch to propel ourselves upward. Then it was through a crevice in the rocks that I swear if I had eaten one more Pringles I would not have fit. After some more twists and turns that I didn’t pay too much attention to (more on that later) we came to a steep rock wall face that we shimmied up.

View from the top

After picking the grass and seeds from my teeth and hair I did take note of the stupendous view in all directions and was thankful we had risked our lives getting here because at least the photos would be awesome. Then our colleague says, “Now we just cross over this little bridge and climb that,” as she pointed to another steep rock face that seemed to go to the moon. The “bridge” was 6 tree branches laying

The “bridge”

across a crevasse. No handrails or safety net. But we crossed, and were relieved to see that we actually would not have plunged hundred of feet if we fell, just dozens of feet, maybe breaking an ankle rather than our whole spine. At this point I thought our colleagues were wondering if we were total losers, so I shimmied right up that next wall face ahead of them. Then I remembered how my travel pal Ilean and I had shimmied up a giant rock outcropping on the beach in Brazil, only to find ourselves unable to get down until a group of surfers rescued us. And there were no Brazilian surfers up here.

So sweat beaded up on my face, and our colleagues decided they weren’t going any higher since they had done this many times. They said, “You know the way back, right?” and of course I said yes and smiled and then threw up a little in my mouth as they bounded over the tree branches back to camp. When they were out of earshot I yelled for Jamey who was taking photos from a lower level. I told him I was stranded and he suggested I scoot down on my butt, ever so slowly. Now I don’t want to be dramatic but had I taken a little tumble I would have rolled off a really tall cliff and my death would have been the stuff of legends. But scoot scoot scoot I did, leaving a little skin and cotton material along the rock face as I made my way back down. I was shaking a bit, and I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, but I was alive. And of course you guessed already that we got a little lost going back but eventually we made it back acting like this had been a hike up an easy trail, just like they told us.

Jamey makes like Spiderman and scales a wall, except without using the web-stuff that squirts out of his wrists.

So how do we follow up this act of bravery? By rock climbing of course! Jamey started it by agreeing to scale a vertical rock wall, and doing so with relative ease. The climbers were all clapping and saying how manly and adventurous he was. Well damned if I was going to be the big weenie sitting on a rock filing my nails! So I also harnessed up, put on the tightest-fitting climbing shoes, and made my way up the same wall. Yes I scuffed my knee and knocked my head on an outcropping, and maybe almost peed myself a little at the top when you have to lean backwards and trust that the rope doesn’t break and the person holding the rope doesn’t trip or sneeze, and you zip downward toward the ground. But we both have to admit that it was a pure adrenalin rush and we totally see why people do this. Jamey wants to do more, and maybe even I do too.

Finally we headed to the waterfall, which also required a perilous walk up and down slippery trails full of sharp stones jutting upwards. Again the colleague with the baby on

Jamey (red trunks) and me (orange trunks) get pummeled by the falls.

back was ahead of us so we endured the hike. And goodness was the payoff worth it. The water fell from hundreds of feet above. There wasn’t an idyllic little pool of water below like in Blue Lagoon where we could swim naked like Brook S. and Christopher A., but rather sharp rocks covered in slippery moss. But even that anger didn’t stop us from maneuvering to those cascades of water where we let it slam down onto us, chilly but refreshing.

We ended the evening all gathered around a big table in the courtyard of a local restaurant that looked exactly like something I saw in Disney’s Animal Kingdom except real.

Dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Siby, illuminated by a single bulb powered from the battery of a parked motorcycle. Not flattering for the complexion.

We ate delicious couscous, chicken, and a great sauce and talked for hours. Back at the compound we sat in chairs under a big mango tree and sang songs as a colleague played the guitar. Sleeping was okay at first since the fan kept us cool. But the electricity stops at midnight in the village so I awoke to a hut with air so close and still I was thinking I had been laid to rest in a tomb. Not much sleep, but the mug shower the next morning woke me up.

The next day, on the drive back home we stopped at a village hut where they were baking bread, a bread different from what we get in Bamako.

Bread going in the oven…

It’s denser and even more delicious, not that I thought that was possible. We bought 5 baguettes for 500 CFAs (1 dollar!) and immediately started chewing on one like a dog with a rawhide.

…and the bread out of the oven and ready to go into our mouths.

Next we visited a place where women were making shea butter from the nuts, and where I performed a little magic trip for a group of little boys outside. (I’m pretty sure they think I am the king of the village now). Finally we spent an hour walking through their Saturday market where they sell fruits, vegetables, machetes, grappling hooks, live fish in a bucket, cloth, pans, delicious fried

Saturday market in Siby, much more exciting than the U.S. mall and a tastier food court.

dough and potatoes, baskets, and where Jamey and I bought boubous, the traditional robe/pants set that we will sport on Africa Day at school. Pictures to follow.

I do some street magic for the kids, and they think I’m a sorcerer.

Rock climbing, hiking across crevasses, mug showers, huts…have aliens taken over our bodies? I did spend a fair amount of time buffing my nails once we got home as all of that adventure took its toll, so I haven’t gone completely to the dark side yet. But there’s always next week….