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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we are moving to America.

Photo: Public Domain

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quincy is also my hometown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan.

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

Following the ancient Silk Road route in Uzbekistan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jeff Fessler

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

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

Q: Will you be living next to a cornfield?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Chapter 31: Stuffed Raccoons, Greenlandic Hip Hop, and Selfie Stick Harpoons: My Search for Solitude

IMG_3020

One of the things I loved most as a kid was piling into the car with my siblings and parents and taking a trip to see the grandparents. I had two sets of grandparents and both lived in tiny Illinois towns that required what seemed like a day’s drive through the midwestern countryside. Of course the drives were really about 30 minutes or so, but when you are ten and arguing with your sisters about their legs invading your seat space (“MOM! Jill’s leg is crossing the border into my seat area!”), it seemed so much longer. I’m sure my parents agreed.

We may have been close to home, but it seemed like a whole different world—fields of towering corn that seemed to go on forever, the smell of pig manure that would fill the car (and that we would blame on our sister Amy), and all those beautiful cows that I thought were the farmers’ pets. I’d look at those farmhouses perched alone in the center of nowhere and wonder if it was super relaxing or super scary not to have a neighbor within a mile or two. From my extensive knowledge gleaned from comic books and horror films, I figured they were prime targets for an alien abduction or an attack by an escaped one-armed patient from an insane asylum. I mean, during the day these wide-open landscapes looked like the subject of a Grandma Moses painting, but at night they were the perfect setting for The Walking Dead (“Wilbur, there’s a growling young man on the porch without one side of his face. Should I invite him in for a piece of pie?”).

Slide1

You can get drunk on the north or the south side of the street.

You can get drunk on the north or the south side of the street in Mendon.

It was a different world when we arrived in these far away towns, though. Mendon, Illinois, home of Grandma and Grandpa Fessler, had a tiny downtown, really nothing more than a line of squat commercial buildings along the highway that sliced through town. There was Strickler’s grocery store where we bought many a can of Pringles and jars of Tang, and the Variety Store packed full of, well, a variety of things made of plastic that gave the store it’s memorable and brain-cell-killing scent. And best of all, in a town of less than 900 people, there was not one, but two taverns packed with people, right across the street from each other. I like a town that knows its priorities.

Grandma and Grandpa lived in a minty green ranch style home about five houses from where the town ended and the blacktop road turned to gravel. There was an expansive field across the street from them with a grey barn and silo in the distance, and another big field behind them with a weathered red barn. Even though we could drive from their house to our house in the time it took to watch an episode of the Brady Bunch, it still felt like I was smack in the middle of nowhere.

Grandma and Grandpa McClelland lived in the even tinier town of Meyer, Illinois (if you look at the shape of Illinois as the profile of a fat guy, Meyer is the bellybutton on the protruding stomach). Sitting on the east bank of the Mississippi River, it’s 100 or so residents were separated from the muddy waters by a levee 20 feet tall (only 10 people live there now due to devastating floods in 1993 and 2008). I loved staying in Meyer on my summer vacation because it seemed even more remote than Mendon–I could count on my hand how many cars drove down by in a day.Slide1 (1)

But for a kid, this isolated town at the end of a blacktopped road had it all. There was no

downtown (geez, there was hardly even a town) but there was…wait for it…a tavern! And it had a stuffed raccoon outside the door that made a noise when the bartender inside pushed a button.

I’d walk atop the levee looking for arrowheads, take the ferry across the river, or pick raspberries in Grandma’s garden. I remember once looking out Grandma’s bedroom window as a storm approached, seeing the unending

yellow wheat field across the road contrasted against an ominous slate blue sky. Why couldn’t all landscapes be the same color as the Hermes Spring/Summer 2015 men’s collection?

Hollister august 2012 - 79 – Version 2

Looking at cobalt blue and yellow in the landscape….

Source: http://www.mensluxuryandstyle.com

Or looking at it the runway. Source: http://www.mensluxuryandstyle.com

Looking back on my childhood, I really wonder if my brain was warped from eating too many Pop-tarts, because it seems weird that I liked nothing better than being far away from home in secluded, isolated places (I’m pretty sure that is one of those things you see on the list of characteristics of a serial killer). But I loved visiting places that seemed undiscovered, off-the-beaten-path spots where adventure and surprise awaited around every corner, e.g. stuffed raccoons, dueling taverns, etc.

Greasy hair and sore feet on the ancient Incan trail to Machu Picchu.

Greasy hair and sore feet on the ancient Incan trail to Machu Picchu.

I continued to explore this odd desire as I got older. In high school, while most kids were loitering at the mall, my friends and I frequented abandoned farmhouses in the countryside surrounding my town. As a high school exchange student living in Peru, I got to hike three days with a small group along a remote, ancient, Incan trail to the ruins of Machu Picchu. I remember this trip for several reasons: 1. In three days of hiking we saw only two other humans; 2. It was the first and last time I went three days without washing my hair; 3. I’m not a fan of remote places that require long hikes.

Years later I finally stepped foot on a place that had been a dream destination, a spot that Chile & Easter Island July 2008 - 486is known as one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. It took us eight hours to fly from Miami to Santiago, Chile, then another fives hours flying straight west to Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island. I had never felt so isolated, just our little foursome and 900 of those stone head statues (moais) to explore. Even though we felt like we were in The Land That Time Forgot, there was still an Internet café, a luxury eco-resort, a Hertz car rental, and a post office that would stamp a moai in your passport for two bucks.

There have been other places along the way that felt isolated and undiscovered for a minute or two—until the tour buses pulled in or until we drove twenty minutes away and the McDonalds and KFC started popping up along the roadside. The rock-hewn churches inside of caves in Bulgaria were desolate, but only because we were there after-hours, risking life and limb along darkened, muddy trails (I perhaps forgot the lesson I learned in Peru about hiking).

Stop taking my picture crazy American boy.

Wait a minute, I think you can see a sliver of temple there on the right.

There was exactly one temple around Angkor Wat in Cambodia (the largest religious monument in the world) that seemed secluded. It was the only temple where, for whatever reason, we were the only two there, probably since the 1100s when Khmers worshipped here. Later that afternoon we visited another temple that our guide assured us was the most remote, requiring a bumpy 50-minute ride in an open-aired tuk-tuk with dragonflies slamming into our faces. Upon arrival we saw that a quarter of the population of Tokyo had decided to visit this “remote” locale as well. All of my photos are 95% Japanese faces/sun umbrellas and 5% temple.

Then there was Greenland. This past summer, feeling a little melancholy leaving Mali after three years, we decided to take a vacation within our U.S. vacation. So, on a whim we chose Greenland, the world’s largest island. And although it was my Fantasy Island destination from childhood, I’d venture to say that most folks wouldn’t go there even if they won a free ticket. “You know, Jeff, it’s not really green,” I would hear. Because naturally I was thinking that Greenland looked exactly like Maui. I knew it was a country larger than Mexico, but with a population smaller than Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and that appealed to me. Although I was desperately hoping it would be nothing like Arkansas (sorry, Pine Bluffians).

IMG_5484

When you’ve seen the world, there’s always Greenland.

JF & JY Graceland

We were there too: Graceland, former home and final resting place of Elvis (or is it……?)

An old saying goes, “When you’ve seen the world, there’s always Greenland.” As a kid I’d stare at the world map taped to my bedroom wall, and marvel at how far removed that big old white island was from the rest of the world. Even though Easter Island was remote, lots of people still went there. Greenland on the other hand gets about 12 tourists a year. Actually, about 35,000 fly in every year for a visit, but when Graceland–the former home and current resting place (maybe??) of Elvis–gets 600,000 visitors a year, and Legoland California gets 60 million visitors a year, and the Creation “Museum” in Kentucky–which purports that the earth is just 6,000 years young and that humans and dinosaurs chilled out together—gets 250,000 numbskulls to visit each year, 35,000 Greenland visitors seems like a drop in the bucket.

Everything about this country made me want to see it. An ice sheet covers over 80% of

Gingers rock: Erik the Red founded the 1st Norse settlement in Greenland in 982. Image Source: http://www.galleryhistoricalfigures.com

Gingers rock: Erik the Red founded the 1st Norse settlement in Greenland in 982. Image Source: http://www.galleryhistoricalfigures.com

the land, and if it all melted the world’s oceans would rise 23 feet (the ice sheet really is melting much faster than usual due to climate change, so start building your ocean front home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas now!). Over the last 4500 years it was settled by Vikings and Inuits and Danish people. Football (aka soccer in the U.S.) is the national sport but Greenland is not a member of FIFA because of its current inability to grow grass for regulation grass pitches. Global warming should change that in the next couple of years. nuuk posseThere is a Greenlandic hip hop group named Nuuk Posse whose members are Inuit and who rap in Danish, English, and Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language. If you list the 20 largest Greenlandic cities by population, the top spot is the capital Nuuk with 16,400 people, and in the 20th spot is Kangaamiut with a whopping 353 people. You have to travel between towns by helicopter or boat because there are zero roads connecting them.

We flew Air Greenland from Iceland into Kulusuk, Greenland, population 267. The airport is a former U.S. military airstrip built in the 1950s. Inside it’s adorned with the skins of polar bears, the animal that’s the symbol of the country and adorns Greenland’s national coat of arms (sort of like if Americans decorated LA International with bald eagle feathers). We stayed at Hotel Kulusuk, the one and only hotel option, which on the outside looked sort of like a warehouse, but was cozy on the inside with stunning panoramas from every window of a fjord and snow-capped mountains.

The hide of their national animal decorating the terminal.

The hide of their national animal decorating the terminal.

Our room with a view.

Our room with a view.

The village, a 30-minute hike down a muddy road surrounded by snow banks, looked like a movie set…brightly colored wooden houses that looked exactly how a kindergarten draws a house with a peaked top and one window and door. Aside from a few local Inuit fisherman working on a boat, we were the only souls around. It was here where we opted to go for a ride in a tiny open-air motorboat into the iceberg filled fjord. The hotel brochure described this trip as something like a “journey into the solitude,” where our only neighbors would be stunningly gorgeous icebergs crisscrossed by turquoise and jade stripes where melt water from the glaciers has run into crevasses in the many thousand year-old ice. After living in a noisy and crowded West African country, and getting ready to move to an even more noisy and crowded Asian country, the thought of being surrounded by pure air and water and enveloped in silence for a few hours sounded like a dream.

IMG_5501

A rare moment when our boat mates weren’t using a camera.

Then came the group of six Japanese tourists and a young, amorous Spanish couple who would make sure that the solitude part never happened. We all crowded into the teeny orange boat, donned weird, cube-shaped life vests, and put our lives into the hands of the teenage Inuit driver. Although young, he was a master at maneuvering through the iceberg-clogged bay, regularly reaching his leg outside the boat to push the ice chunks away from the boat.

As we finally got into more open water, the other passengers stood for photos—selfies, group photos, posed shots, informal shots, romantic poses, selfie stick pictures, pouty lip shots, photos with sunglasses, photos without, kissing pictures, laughing shots, serious shots, pretending-to-hold-the-iceberg-in-the-distance pics. And all of the photos were

Eating fresh iceberg to numb the pain of rude tourists. Mmmm, tastes like Evian!

Eating fresh iceberg to numb the pain of rude tourists. Mmmm, tastes like Evian!

accompanied by loud Japanese and Spanish chatter that reverberated off the icebergs and I’m sure ricocheted across the entire Greenlandic ice sheet, waking polar bears and musk oxen across the country. Add to this the lovefest happening between the two Spanish people a mere two feet from where we sat. Nothing like groping and the sounds of wet, sloppy kisses to accompany our arctic viewing. Seriously, if we had passed close to a flat iceberg, the future little Maria would have had a fantastic story about where mama and papa conceived her.IMG_5541

I was sitting within reaching distance of the boat controls. Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind to grab the wheel and violently jerk the boat so that these passengers spilled out into the icy waters and became Japanese and Spanish icebergs. Or that I didn’t imagine how IMG_5509a selfie stick could also be used as a people harpoon. But I avoided a lengthy prison sentence in a Greenlandic prison by just staring out at the snowy mountains and breathing deeply to fill my lungs with the pristine air. Occasionally I would scrape my gloved hand across an iceberg when we were close enough, and pop the ice bits into my mouth (where they tasted just like Evian). This was enough to almost make me stop wishing I were somewhere more remote even though I was in one of the most remote places on earth.

IMG_5739Yes, Jamey and I snapped some photos too (that’s where these came from), but 85% of our time was spent just trying to be present in this nearly untouched environment. Okay, maybe I spent an additional 5% of the time wishing the rest of the passengers would fall overboard, but aside from that I can still clearly see, smell, feel, hear, and taste this experience. I’m betting that for the others, their only memories are in a bunch of stupid digital photos that none of their friends or families really wants to see (“Oh, and here’s me and Mr. Miyagi laughing at the funny-shaped iceberg that looks like Godzilla, and here’s me and Hiroki laughing at another funny-shaped iceberg that looks like Hello Kitty, and…”).

IMG_5638

Despite the setbacks I’ll continue my quest to find remote corners of the earth to explore, even if it is a hole-in-the-wall tavern in the middle of nowhere. Just wait until I leave before you take a damned selfie with that stuffed raccoon.