Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Amazon Cruise

Dancing in the Rain

Today's Voluntary Nomads excerpt comes from Chapter 31 of Part Eight: Bolivia Cliffhangers:

The Amazon Cruise

We called one of our excursions in Bolivia "The Amazon Cruise," although that sounds grander than it was. We didn't cruise the actual Amazon. We putt-putted down the Mamore River, a tributary of the Amazon, for three days on a boat not much fancier than Humphrey Bogart's African Queen. To get to the boat, we flew to the town of Trinidad and chartered a bus from there to the river.

As our small plane carried us from the runway at 13,000 feet up through the Andes and back down to sea level, we passed between snow capped mountain peaks looming higher than our cruising altitude on both sides -- more spectacular than the IMAX movie experience – I hung on to the armrests as if I could keep the plane airborne by myself.

Our embassy CLO (Community Liaison Officer) had organized this trip and chartered the boat we would take down the river. We knew all of the passengers, but we partied the most with our friends Paul and Vicki. The fun started early because of Vicki's fear of flying. She swigged a pre-flight dose of courage and continued to drink, as fast as the attendant could serve her, all the way to Trinidad. Vicki personified life-of-the-party all morning.

The bus we caught at Trinidad kept the fiesta theme going with its splash of colorful decorations typical of the region. The worn-out shock absorbers were equally typical of rural Bolivia. We didn't care. Like a bunch of kids on the way to summer camp, we sang songs (led by our tipsy first-grade teacher of course) and laughed and chattered all the way. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. The tropical humidity brought curls even to my stick-straight hair.

The boat looked sea-worthy to me, but I wondered how our crowd could fit on it. When the door of our cabin opened, I understood. Inside I saw a cot-sized bunk bed. That's it. There was just enough room for one person to stand beside the bed. When Fred and I were both in the room, one of us had to crawl into the bed to allow room for the other to change clothes.

One toilet/shower stall served all passengers. I could tell that the shower used murky river water, so I didn't bother with it. I inferred the same about the toilet and lost the tiny spark of enthusiasm I might have had for swimming in the river. Learning that the river hosted piranhas and crocodiles convinced me to stay dry.

Fred, however, trusted that the captain wouldn't encourage any dangerous activity. He swam in that malignant stew of microorganisms and sharp-toothed predators as did a few others, including Vicki and Paul. He also went crocodile hunting. I kissed Fred goodbye when he left on that excursion, not knowing whether he would return in one piece if at all. He was one of six bold hunters who crept out that night. They beamed a bright light along the shoreline to attract the baby crocs and then kidnapped the unwary beasts with their bare hands. Sport for the hunters brought terror to the crocodile nursery, but the catch-and-release escapade ended happily for all.

The day the rains came, our captain asked for volunteers to catch fish for dinner. I raised my hand. Fred looked surprised that I would do such a thing, but he volunteered too. An older fellow and his grandson joined us, and we stepped into a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat with a crewmember/guide who supplied us with waterproof slickers and fishing gear.

The guide handed each of us an ordinary cane pole equipped with twelve inches of steel leader attached to a barbed hook baited with chunks of raw beef. He demonstrated the proper fishing technique. First he dropped the baited hook into the river. Then he slapped the water's surface vigorously for a few seconds with the tip of his pole, and wham! I flinched as he jerked the fish past me into the boat. The guide cautioned us to fling our hooked fish toward the bow of the boat, away from our feet. Using his deft and heavily scarred hands, he grabbed his fish, stabbed it between the eyes with a short knife, and removed the hook.

A gentle rain kept the swarms of mosquitoes at bay and we merry anglers fished for an hour. We caught over forty piranhas and had them for dinner that night, the smaller ones in a savory soup and the larger ones fried to crisp delectability. We nibbled tiny bites, to savor the flavor and also to pick out the numerous tiny bones.

Fred had befriended the captain, trading manly tales and drinking beer with him as he piloted us down the river, and the captain returned the favor by giving Fred a shellacked piranha skull as a memento. We have displayed it on our mantelpiece ever since, to the grisly fascination of our grandsons.

We went on shore once to visit a village. The people lived a simple life with few possessions. Everyone we met wore a smile; most of the younger ones wore only a smile. The village occupied a clearing in a forest of mango trees. We slipped and skidded on the slick conglomeration of rotted mango fruit and river seepage. The sweet stomach-turning odor and proliferation of flying insects drove us back to the boat within minutes. I might have enjoyed the fresh fish and fruit diet, but still I felt glad that I wasn't born to be a resident of the Amazon jungle, prey to the biting hordes.

The rain continued, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, but always steady. We continued to party, as unstoppable as the falling rain. When we had consumed all the beer on the boat, the captain announced that we had set a record. We didn't see pink elephants then, but we did doubt our eyes when pink dolphins cavorted in the water ahead of us. They were real, the captain assured us – a species of fresh water porpoise in shades of pink darkening to purple – colorful beings rollicking in the bow waves of our boat.

At the end of the cruise we expected to reverse our earlier journey. But the unusual amount of rainfall had created a soupy mess where the road used to be and our bus stayed stranded miles away in Trinidad. We had to settle for the best alternative – our group hired two flatbed trucks whose drivers were willing to brave the conditions. We piled in and scrabbled anxiously for a handhold.

The trucks fishtailed down the road, sliding from one side to the other, swerving too close to the edge of a three-foot drop-off to the ditch that ran beside fields of manioc and maize. I clung to Fred and Fred clutched at a splintery board that jerked back and forth with the movement of our truck. As the trucks sashayed, the mud flew and splattered us from head to toe. I clamped my lips closed and kept my head down, grateful for the shelter provided by the bill of my cap.

I feared for our lives, but neither of the trucks overturned or got permanently stuck. We were a stunned bunch of Yankees who disembarked at the airport. Bystanders' incredulous gazes followed as we scraped mud clods from our bodies and straggled single-file toward the check-in desk. ###

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Awed by the speed of a passing Venetian

Excerpt from Voluntary Nomads, Part Seven: Austria Adventures, Chapter 30:

A week after I ran the Vienna Marathon, Fred and I caught the early morning train for a mini-vacation in Venice. We chose the same quaint hotel where Fred had stayed with his friends a couple months earlier. Ochre plaster walls and antique furnishings provided a mellow old-world backdrop. Fred and I exchanged looks of wonderment as we followed the dwarf concierge up the narrow staircase to our floor. The stage was set for romance, mystery, and intrigue.

We strolled to a small neighborhood trattoria where we relaxed in candlelight and enjoyed the best meal of our lives -- baby clams bathed in an unbelievably delicious wine sauce that sent our taste buds to paradise.

After lingering over a second glass of wine, we meandered back to our room, anticipating sweet dreams. But during the night, our hotel lost most of its romanticism. The windows, open in a vain attempt to catch a cooling breeze, overlooked a waterbus stop. Traffic was heavy and midnight conversations were loud and boisterous.

Well before dawn the next morning, the rest of the romantic air leaked out of our hotel when the fish stall beneath our window opened for business. The musical tones of the fishmonger's patter could have been tolerable, but can anyone luxuriate in bed and relish the smell of dead fish? Ah well, we had plenty of sightseeing to do, so we got up and got going.

At breakfast we learned that sitting down to eat in Italy doubled the bill. A helpful British bystander explained that almost all coffee houses and sandwich shops had a counter where patrons could stand while they ate. He advised us to avoid sitting at a table if we wanted to save money.

We walked what seemed like a hundred miles, seeing all manner of wonderful art and architecture. The pace surprised me. Venetian women in elegant suits and spike heels speed walked everywhere and they gave us lollygagging tourists the evil eye. Window-shopping was definitely unacceptable in Venice. Fred and I reacted to the censure and focused on museums and churches instead of shop windows.

To get another perspective of the city, we rode the entire route of the main waterbus that circled the city and offered a picturesque view from the water. At lunchtime, we got off at a random stop and wandered the labyrinth of alleyways until we found a café. Sophisticated Venice-wise tourists now, we savored our spinach/mozzarella sandwiches while standing at the narrow street-side counter.

At the end of our dream weekend, we boarded the night train and found our sleeper coach for the return trip to Vienna. I recall having some anxiety about what our teenage children might have done for entertainment during our absence. ###

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Saturday, December 17, 2011


Graduate and Proud Sister

Vienna, Austria, 1991. In the middle of our sixth Foreign Service posting, sixteen years after signing on, we realized just how close we were to empty-nest-time. From Voluntary Nomads, Part Seven: Austria Adventures, Chapter 29:

Dakota went to Turkey on his senior class trip in May and returned mere days before graduation.  High school graduation. Where had the time gone? I recalled our photo of not-quite-two-year-old Dakota in Washington, DC, all dressed up in his new Winnie-the-Pooh outfit, ready to fly to Tehran in 1975. Now in 1991 our handsome eighteen-year-old son stood at the beginning of a new path to his own future.

More interested in music than in academics, Dakota decided to stay with us in Vienna for a year of study at the American Institute of Music (AIM). To fill the time between graduation and the start of classes at AIM, he signed up for the summer work program at the embassy. The personnel office did their best to create jobs for teens, gave them a courtesy security clearance based on their parent's background investigation, and paid them to help the gardeners and caretakers or function as security escorts for workmen in unclassified areas of the embassy. Before Dakota got a job through that program, I had a brainstorm: he could do my job while I went on home leave. My boss and the Brookhaven Lab accountants approved the plan.

I wrote glossaries to automate the correspondence that Dakota would have to generate and streamlined the daily routine as much as possible. The story had a perfect ending. Dakota did great work, and I still had a job when I got back. And Dakota survived his two-month bachelor experience as well.

Meanwhile, Tina flew to Washington, DC to spend time with her girlfriend Alex Asselin from Dominican Republic days. Fred and I rode the train to Frankfurt where we could catch a direct flight to Dallas. This was our first time on a night train and our first experience in a sleeping compartment. Novels always describe the wheel clicking rhythm and rocking motion as soothing and dream promoting. But it reminded me of my father pushing on my shoulder to get me up for school, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up.

In the middle of the night, Fred got up to pee. Being a considerate guy he didn't turn on the light. He groped in the dark to find the floor-level cupboard that held the urinal, a quart-sized vessel with a handle at one end and a spout at the other. After using the urinal, the traveler was supposed to return it to the cupboard where the angle of the shelf would automatically tip the contents (onto the tracks below, I'm guessing).

Fred fumbled the cupboard door open, removed and used the urinal. Bumping and clunking noises followed.

"What the hell?" He flicked on the light. "Damn."

The overhead light glared upon perplexed Fred holding one of his shoes. I watched him pour the contents of his shoe into the urinal. And I giggled. Giggles escalated into belly laughs that disintegrated into hiccupy guffaws. Fred laughed then too, although he didn't seem quite as amused as I was; maybe he wasn't quite as loopy from sleep deprivation, or he envisioned putting his foot into a damp shoe in the morning.

In Dallas we launched our visit to Fred's sisters who lived within the Texas Triangle, as we called La Porte (Laura), Conroe (Pat), and Austin (Beth). Party, party, party. The Austin segment included a side trip to Port Aransas where I got the second worst sunburn of my life, blistering my calves, during a long walk with Fred up and down the beach.

After our whirlwind tour of the Texas Triangle, we flew to Albuquerque and met up with Tina for our visits to my dad and his wife Bea in Los Lunas and to Fred's parents in Roswell. Tina toured the UNM campus, one of her options for college. She also got her driver's license and practiced driving in my dad's Goldie, a venerable Pontiac sedan. Fred spent the whole vacation feeling sick. We wondered if it might be a recurrence of dengue fever that had first infected him in Somalia and then again in the Dominican Republic. He felt better by the time we topped off the home leave experience with five days in DC getting physicals and taking care of other business.

When we arrived back in Vienna on that August day, home never looked so good. It would have been perfect if our suitcases had arrived with us, but international travel is not all wine and roses after all. Our bags showed up two days later. ###

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Half Century

Bicycle Reststop

Today's excerpt from Voluntary Nomads takes us to Austria in the spring of 1990.

Spring weather turned our attention to bicycling. Fred bought a set of detailed maps of the many bike routes throughout Austria. Once he and I had explored the area in and around Vienna, we put our bikes on the car-rack and ventured into the countryside. We rode much of the time on designated bicycle paths and some of the time on country roads. Outside the city, Austrian drivers seemed less hurried or harried and they gave the utmost consideration to bicyclists; I felt safe. Often we cruised those byways on Sundays and found the quaint little towns virtually deserted. I imagined all the families gathered at Oma's (granny's) house for dinner after Mass. I pictured us as colorful figures on a scenic postcard.

Out in the country, we rode among the hills and valleys, and once we pedaled the perimeter of a potato field. There, in the middle of nowhere, we came upon a small wooden shed with rustic picnic tables outside. Inside the shed, refreshments were sold, including beer and wine. More than just cyclist-friendly, this was cyclist-heavenly.

Half Century
Our lovely bicycling excursions over the summer gave me the idea for a birthday trip to celebrate my fiftieth. One of our map packets featured a trail that ran along the Danube and I chose the portion from Passau, Germany to Melk, Austria, a trip that would take three days.

To catch the train to Passau we had to get up at 4:45 AM. We packed our saddlebags the night before and, after some fiddling around, discovered that Fred's bags fit on my bike and vice versa.

We rode our bikes in the early morning darkness with perfect visibility thanks to the bright streetlights. I shivered a little in the wind that made sixty degrees seem chilly.

Traffic on the Gurtel was a little scary. Where could all those people be going at 5:30 in the morning?

Although we purchased our passenger tickets in August, we had to get tickets for the bikes on the day of travel, September 12, my birthday. The man at the ticket window spoke perfect English and handed Fred our tickets as he directed us to take our bicycles up to the platform. Fred assumed that the ticket man meant we should take the escalator along with the regular passengers.

The world switched to slow motion as Fred performed a wild acrobatic routine with his bicycle caught in the escalator's claws. Before the comedy had a chance to turn into a tragedy, a Turkish newspaper vendor stepped in to pull the red emergency ring. The escalator stopped immediately, but the alarm system set off a clamor of bells that centered everyone's attention on Fred's drama. While Fred pulled himself and his bicycle and his baggage together, I stood paralyzed, my view of the world still in shocked slow-mo. An important lesson: bicycles and escalators are best ridden separately.

After that, boarding the train was a snap. This was a special bicycle train with half the cars designed to transport bikes. In typical Austrian fashion, the train got underway right on schedule. As the wheels clickety-clicked along, I watched blue sky replace clouds and improve the outlook for today's forty-four-mile leg of my birthday bike trip. ###

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Sunday, December 11, 2011



The trip to our next post, Vienna, Austria, in 1989, marked a milestone for us -- the kids and I had never traveled without Fred before, not once in our fourteen years of moves overseas. I suffered from that uneasy feeling of something missing. To add to my discomfort, our two flights were late and later and we had to sit on the runway in New York for three hours due to bad weather somewhere nearby. Ugh. I tried to snooze away the transatlantic flight, but every time the bliss of sleep approached, my flopping head jerked me back to consciousness. At the end of a very long night I blessed our sponsors, who met us at the airport. If I had the energy I would have shouted halleluiah when I saw our bags bump through the black rubber flaps onto the carousel. Our gentle sponsors delivered three weary bodies to Apartment 2/3 at 16 Chimanistrasse in the Nineteenth District of Vienna, Austria, our home for the next three years.

Jet lag weighed me down like a lead cape and I dragged through the next few days, receiving our airfreight and the embassy welcome kit, plus figuring out how to get Dakota and Tina to their school orientation.

Vienna's fabulous public transportation system lay almost at our doorstep with a bus/tram stop less than a block away, on the route that ended at the foot of the hill occupied by the American International School (AIS) campus. Many of the passengers on that route on the day of orientation were the right age to be AIS students. One boy in particular attracted my attention with his animated conversation in the seat ahead of us. That was Sam Torabi, who became one of Dakota's best friends and his future college roommate.

After the kids' introduction to AIS, we looked forward to Fred's arrival on the following day. He had seemed sad about sending us ahead to post, and I thought of a surprise to welcome him home and cheer him up. I stocked the fridge with an assortment of a dozen different Austrian beers and posted a rating sheet on the fridge door.

"What's this?" Fred pointed to my hand-lettered chart.

"Look inside." I swung the fridge door open. "Ta Da!"

Fred's eyes sparkled and he reached for his first tall white and gold can of Zipfer. After finishing the home test of canned beer, Fred switched to bottles and homed in on Gösser as his number one choice in Austrian beers.

We learned that our new home had a former life as officers' quarters during the American occupation of Vienna following World War II. Our place was formed by the removal of dividing walls between two adjacent two-bedroom apartments. On the ground floor we had two main entrances, two living rooms, two dining rooms, one kitchen, and one laundry room (formerly a kitchen). Two staircases led to the bedrooms, two on each side, and bathrooms, one on each side. We put the kids on one side and us on the other and designated the spare bedroom as guestroom/office. There was a door between the guestroom and Tina's room, but Tina decided to put her dresser against it. She might have been guarding her privacy or merely creating more options for furniture arrangement – she didn't say which.

The apartment had a total of six doors to the outside world – the two main entrances plus glass doors from the kitchen, one dining area, and both living rooms -- and I expected to receive a key ring worthy of a castle's chatelaine. I was surprised and impressed that one key opened all six doors as well as the main gate to the compound. The price tag for duplicate keys for the kids came as a shock. At $20 each, those keys should have been silver-plated.

I dove into German lessons at the embassy and let the personnel office know I was looking for work. Dakota and Tina started highschool, made friends, and seemed happy. But I noticed that Dakota wrote "Hell" on the top left hand corner of the envelope addressed to his friend from the Dominican Republic. If he did feel banished to Hades, it wasn't long before that feeling faded in the presence of new friends and the experiences available with all of Europe as a playground. ###

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Climb of a Lifetime

Climbers Conquer Pico Duarte

Pico Duarte, the highest point in the Dominican Republic, beckoned with promises of adventure. The original instigators of the trip dropped out at the last minute, leaving four eager beavers crazy enough to commit to the expedition. The co-conspirators assumed alternative identities to protect their reputations as respectable citizens: La Doña (me), Mr. Congeniality (Fred), Euell Gibbons (Delbert McCluskey, an experienced AID officer), and Dirk Pathfinder (Adam Namm, a first-tour consular officer).

From Voluntary Nomads, Part Six: Dominican Republic Dramas, Chapter 26:

Climb of a Lifetime
The explorers prepared for a long weekend of camping and strenuous hiking. In spite of Dirk Pathfinder's sturdy self-image as the epitome of readiness, he forgot his toothbrush and had to borrow one from La Doña before leaving town. After triple-checking their checklists, the intrepid bunch set off for the mountainous world of pine trees and the climb of their lives.
The first leg of their journey took them to Jarabacoa for one night in the candlelit Hotel La Montaña. If it hadn't been so dark, they might have set up bowling pins in the unusually long hallway, but they retired for the night instead. Dirk and Euell went to bed in peace, but La Doña and Mr. Congeniality weren't as lucky.
La Doña, toothbrush (her own) in hand, entered the bathroom and lit a candle on the shelf above the sink. What she saw in the shadowy mirror reflection sent her rushing back to the bedroom, waving her toothbrush wildly above her head.
"Aaack!" she screamed at Mr. Congeniality.
Following the gist of La Doña's posturing, Mr. C. snuck a peek inside the bathroom door where he discovered a family of chartreuse tree frogs secured by their orange suction cup toes to the slick yellow tile of the wall. La Doña peered around his shoulder as he pulled the shower curtain to form a barrier between the frog zone and the area of human occupation.
"That's okay, I really didn't plan to shower anyway." La Doña kept an eye on the shower curtain as she hurried to take care of her most urgent bathroom needs.
As soon as Mr. Congeniality and La Doña cuddled into a comfortable spoon position, electric service resumed. Pupil-constricting light glared down from the single bulb hanging from the high ceiling. The frog family's quack-like croaks echoed in protest.
Before Mr. C. could find the light switch, La Doña spotted a large black something in the nearest corner of the ceiling.
"Hey," she exclaimed. "What's that?"
Mr. C. toddled across the saggy mattress for a closer look. "It's just a bat."
"Just? I can't sleep with that hanging over my head."
Mr. C. jumped down and surveyed the room for potential bat-extraction tools. He grabbed his running shoe and threw it at the bat. He picked up the other shoe and tried again. Pow, the bat fell to the floor and scuttled under the bed.
"Aack!" La Doña pulled knees to chest and scrunched up against the headboard.
Mr. C. jabbed at the bat with his shoe. The bat hissed and retreated further.
"Can't you get that out of here?" A hint of hysteria shrilled in La Doña's squeak.
Valiant Mr. C. thrust shoe into darkness again. This time the bat latched on. With a single mighty swing, Mr. C. launched both shoe and clinging bat out the open window and into the starry night. The bat flew away and the shoe hit the dirt two stories below.
La Doña and Mr. Congeniality laughed themselves to sleep with the quacks of tree frogs croaking in the background. They rested well in their blissful state of ignorance, completely unaware of the perils that lurked on the rugged trail to Pico Duarte. ###

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Monday, December 5, 2011


Santo Domingo had well-established scouting programs that interested our young teens (Dakota at 14 and Tina, 13). Both the Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops sponsored activities almost every weekend and our lives filled up with preparations for ten-mile hikes and camping trips.

The scout leaders invited parents to participate in a few of the scouts' camping trips and some of the longer hikes. Our whole family went on the camping expedition to Saona Island.

From Voluntary Nomads, Part Six: Dominican Republic Dramas, Chapter 25:


A Dominican naval vessel carried us out to sea. I stood at the rail and drank in the fresh sea air, keeping my eye on the horizon and watching for signs of the island. At first it looked like a tiny bump. The hump grew as we approached and it appeared to sprout fronds like a chia pet when we came closer.

I expected the ship to deliver us to the beach where we would set up our tents in the forest of coconut palms. But no, our captain cut the engines and dropped anchor in deep water several hundred meters off shore.

I felt my heart rate rise as a small motorboat putt-putted toward us. I didn't want to believe that such a feeble scow was meant to be our ferry. We had twenty people and an enormous pile of camping gear to convey across an expanse of water that seemed to widen as we waited. How many trips? Who would go first?

The prospect of transfer from naval vessel to lowly tub terrified me. The waves were too high. The ship lurched one way as the scow sloughed in the opposite direction. To step across the gap required some of the same skills as tightrope walking. I gasped as each scout made the leap. When my turn came, I held my breath and threw myself across the void. I stumbled and flopped like a flounder into the Scout Master's lap. Everyone laughed at my graceless landing so I hammed it up a bit, high on adrenaline and the thrill of landing in the boat instead of in the ocean.

On shore, the leaders told us that the main danger on this expedition was falling coconuts. They shocked and amazed us with terrible tales about legendary fatal head conkings. I kept a wary eye on the fruit hanging high above us, although I wasn't sure if the warnings were serious or tongue-in-cheek. All of the scouting activities went on as planned, and no one in our party got bonked.

Only a month after that successful scouting adventure on Saona Island, I felt inspired to assist the Girl Scout leader with a beach camping trip. We drove out of Santo Domingo with two vanloads of girls and gear and found a perfect spot near the town of Bayahibe. The scouts pitched their tents and made a fire ring for the evening's campfire. Then I suggested a hike on the beach.

We flipped a coin. Heads, we go north; tails, to the south. The twenty-five centavo piece landed heads up. About fifteen minutes up the beach from our campsite, we found a long, shallow tide pool that begged to be explored. As the girls poked sea urchins and chased tiny tropical fish and combative crabs, I climbed a rocky outcrop to see what lay beyond.

I took one look and spun around at once. The beach beyond the rock barrier was crowded with people. Naked people. Unclothed male human beings. Birthday-suited men demonstrating mutual affection.

I clambered down the rocks and quietly urged my charges to return to camp to begin dinner preparations.

When we went beach combing the following day, I led the way without a coin toss. We headed south, the opposite direction of yesterday's exploration. ###

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Club Med

Hedonism may not be the only attraction of the Caribbean, but it is a powerful one. Certainly the pursuit of pleasure was all I had in mind when I booked a long weekend for our family at Club Med, Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic.

From Voluntary Nomads, Part Six: Dominican Republic Dramas, Chapter 24:

Club Med

We joined a group of embassy folks who gathered at Club Med to enjoy the many activities provided at this all-inclusive resort. Dakota and Tina found their friends and made a beeline to the sports activities led by the Club Med G.O.s (Gracious Organizers). Dakota and his buddies headed straight for the windsurfing beach; Tina's bunch homed in on the archery field. Fred and I went sailing for an hour before we parted ways. I wanted to try aerobics. Fred had his eye on the juggling class.
I found out later why the juggling class appealed to Fred. The G.O. was a curvaceous young French cutie whose string bikini had no top half. Impossible as it might have seemed, somehow the whole class, including Fred, did learn to juggle.
The aerobics class pumped me up. I jumped and kicked and hopped around with the best of them. Cardiovascular conditioning from years of running gave me a huge endurance advantage. Lacking proper shoes, I pranced barefoot on the hardwood stage like a Martha Graham clone. There was no logical reason not to do two classes back-to-back, so I did, and finished the second one wanting more.
With our friends at dinner, an all-you-can-eat sumptuous buffet prepared by a team of French chefs, we all babbled our enthusiasm about the Club Med activities, classes, and food. I sipped a plummy young cabernet and made multiple forays to the bread and cheese bar. Crusty, butter-infused garlic bread sang a harmonious duet with ambrosia-rimmed, creamy Camembert.
Constant refills of beer mugs and wine glasses energized the atmosphere and the party gathered steam. Everybody agreed that the post-dinner show in the auditorium should crown our evening.
Guests filled the tiers of wooden bench seats and excited chatter all but drowned out the piped-in background music. Then the lights dimmed and the Master of Ceremonies stepped out onto center stage.
"Okay everybody – it's time for Crazy Signs!"
All of the guests stood up to mimic the moves of the G.O.s as they demonstrated Club Med's signature communal dance. A wild combination of the Hokey Pokey and the Macarena, Crazy Signs drove us insane as we stumbled through the complicated series of waves, claps, stomps, kicks, twists, turns, bends, and shouts. It also broke the ice and set us up for the next act: the Couples' Contest.
Our M.C. called for three couples to volunteer as contestants. The row of embassy people behind Fred and me yelled and whistled while the M.C. chose the first two couples. We didn't know the conspirators in back of us were pointing and gesturing as well as hollering.
Couple Number 3? Fred and Nancy.
A bronze Adonis G.O. guided me to a chair and handed me a heart-shaped scrap of cloth and a threaded needle. He wrapped a red silk scarf around my eyes and then pushed Fred over my knees so that Fred's rear faced the audience. At the M.C.'s signal, we female halves of the three chump couples revealed our total lack of skill at blind-appliqué. The guys yelped when stuck, and the audience cheered. The sadism applause meter gave second place to Fred and me for that event.
Humiliation escalated with the break-dancing contest. Fred got down on the floor and tried to spin around on his back. I blushed ten degrees of flame red while I tripped over my tangled moon walking feet. Couple Number 3 sagged to third place.
I wasn't overjoyed to see the blindfold coming my way again. But this time I carried the victory and won first place for wrapping Fred like a mummy in toilet paper.
Then Fred shook and shimmied in a grass skirt for second place in the hula dance competition.
My face ached from the self-conscious grin stretched from cheek to cheek. What could possibly come next?
Balloons. Each patsy girl had to run the full length of the stage and plop down on a balloon in her guy's lap. I ran as fast as I could and pounced with all my might. I bounced. The other couples' bursting balloons popped and banged like fireworks. The audience roared. The M.C. insisted that I try again. I sprinted across the stage and plunked harder. I ricocheted higher. Same result on my third try. Oh, the shame of it.
At the end of the Couples Contest, the M.C. awarded second place to Couple Number 3 and gave free drinks to all the contestants. For future show-nights at Club Med, Fred and I took care to sit behind our friends, not in front of them. ###

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


After we arrived in the Dominican Republic in April 1985, we promised Dakota and Tina they could each get a pet. Tina found a beautiful black kitten she named Carbon (accent on the last syllable in Spanish, meaning coal). Dakota wanted a puppy.

From Voluntary Nomads, Part Six: Dominican Republic Dramas, Chapter 23, here is:


Our vet told us about a breeder he knew whose pair of boxers had just produced a litter of ten. He gave me the address and phone number and I called to set up an appointment for Dakota to see the newborns and pick one.
Dakota chose the only brindle puppy. I could see the love in his eyes when he looked up at me as he stroked the tiny head. "I'm gonna call him Spike."
A few weeks later, Spike was weaned prematurely when his mother stopped lactating. We brought Spike home and bottle-fed him. At first the adorable little fellow needed extra care to overcome his poor beginning as the runt of his litter. Technically Spike belonged to Dakota, but most of his treatments required adult-level skills. Who better than Mom to fill in? While Dakota and Tina studied at school and Fred worked at the embassy, Spike and I consulted with Dr. Nova.
Between visits to the veterinary clinic, Spike and I stayed at home. I administered the medication for the calcium deficiency that made his legs too weak to hold him up, and I rubbed him with the ointments prescribed for his mangy skin rash. His artistically cropped ears needed daily bandage changes as well. I wiped up his little puddles and other housebreaking mishaps when Dakota wasn't around to perform that chore. Spike also depended on me to protect him from Carbón the cat, big enough to overpower the awkward little puppy.
By the time Spike was six months old, he had outgrown his puppy problems and developed into a healthy dog. At the end of every busy day, when I sank into my rattan rocker, Spike appeared, pushed against my hand to demand a vigorous butt scratch, then plopped down beside me. He rested his plush chin on top of my bare foot and gazed up at me as I stroked his head until he dozed.
One evening after we had assumed our usual positions, Spike jerked awake and jumped up. He sniffed the air in all directions and trotted to the dining room. I followed to see what had aroused him. A gray-brown blur scurried along the wall and froze in the corner. No doubt in my mind, the intruder was a rat, possibly a refugee from the vacant-lot-cum-garbage-dump across the street. I intercepted Spike, swooped him into my arms and scrambled up onto the top of the dining room table.
Spike barked. I screamed. Fred, Dakota, and Tina ran in.
"Let the dog go!" Fred's shout echoed in the high-ceilinged room.
"No, no, the rat might bite." I clutched squirming Spike closer to my chest.
The rat took off, scrabbled for footing on the slick terrazzo floor, and headed straight for Dakota's room. Tina jumped up on the table beside me and buried her face in Spike's shoulder. Fred and Dakota shot us withering looks, strode to the bedroom, and slammed the door.
Muffled thumps, grunts, bangs and thuds sounded across the hall. Spike whined and quivered in my arms as the bedroom door swung open. In one hand Fred brandished Dakota's tennis racket. In the other he clamped the tail of a limp, blood-streaked rat. Beside him, Dakota cocked his baseball bat and mimed a home-run swing. I wished I could apologize to Spike for spoiling his fun, but if Fred and Dakota couldn't understand my motives, how could the dog?
After our hunters disposed of their quarry and embellished their tale a few more times, we calmed down. Spike curled up with his head on my foot as if to say, "No hard feelings, Mom." ###

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Leaving Mogadishu

Although no one knows what the future may hold, I doubted that I would ever have the chance to return to Somalia. Unlike the camel in the photo, I had to look forward, not back, and prepare for our move to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Leaving Mogadishu

With the assignment cable in hand, we could start making plans. I brought out the calendar. ASM classes started in August; we would leave Mog in early October; our home leave in Texas and New Mexico would last six weeks; in January Fred had to report to Washington for training, consultation, and Spanish classes; our arrival in Santo Domingo was expected in April. This program looked like fun but maybe not the best plan for school age children.
I didn't want Dakota and Tina to have to change schools four times in one year. I did some research and found out about the Calvert School in Maryland. Calvert School offered home schooling materials with optional teacher support by mail. I signed us up for the whole deal – fifth grade for Tina and sixth grade for Dakota. If successful, my master plan would keep them up-to-date with their studies and able to enter the appropriate grade in Santo Domingo for the final term of the school year.
We asked around and learned that many families faced with the same problems would choose to split up, the wage earner going his way and the spouse and children spending the intervening months in their home of record, until time to show up at the new post when they would reunite. We scoffed at that idea, a practical solution perhaps, but not our style.
I turned my attention from education to logistics. Embassies usually contract with local moving companies to pack employees' household effects. Somalia didn't have moving companies as we know them, so the job reverted back to the employee, or, in most cases, the employee's faithful (or even unfaithful) spouse.
Before I started packing, though, I had to go through the sorting process. Airfreight, sea freight, accompanied baggage, items to discard or give away – our fifth time through the familiar old routine.
As soon as GSO delivered the stacks of packing boxes and packing paper, Dakota got to work. He packed all of his possessions the first day.
In his words, "I figure you'll be needing my help with the rest."
I did need his help as well as Fred's and Tina's. Our team effort finished the job on time and resulted in no breakages whatsoever. Can't say the same for all packers, even the professionals.
We sweated as we worked on our packing at home, and the kids and I sweated at school. ASM had no power for three weeks after a backhoe operated by Somali road crew demolished the school's power pole. An emergency generator ran water pumps to keep the bathrooms functional, but the school had no lights, fans, air-conditioning, computers or electric typewriters.
Tina said she didn't miss computer class at all. Fred asked her why.
"I don't think computers are necessary for my chosen profession."
"And what is your chosen profession, Miss?"
Fred laughed and said he imagined that Tina thought a typical housewife lived in a fine home, had lots of cuddly babies, and told the maid to fix lunch.
As we left Mogadishu, we carried away fond memories of many exciting experiences. But our final adventure in Africa happened during the taxi ride from the Nairobi Hilton to the airport to catch our midnight flight to the States. It was a moonless night, velvet black beyond the reach of the city lights. The hum of the tires and the cozy warmth of the cab almost lulled us to sleep, but the taxi's abrupt stop in the middle of the road bounced us awake. Across the yellow beams of the headlights streamed a parade of phantoms. A herd of wild zebras strolled across the highway, taking no notice of the insignificant intruders in their kingdom. Goodbye, Dark Continent, and thanks for the picturesque farewell salute. ###

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Farewell to Shark's Bay

Fred and Nancy at Shark's Bay

"Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise," according to poet Thomas Gray. I cringe at the thought that we lived our lives according to that principle, but when I remember Shark's Bay....

Farewell to Shark's Bay
(from Voluntary Nomads, Part Five: Somalia Safaris, Chapter 21)

On the trip back to town, passing Shark's Bay, Fred drew our attention to the unusual number of cars parked on the beach. A few months earlier the trip to Shark's Bay had been simplified by the construction of a real road. The Somali government built a highway to reach a prisoner-of-war camp down the coast from Shark's Bay, and the road passed close enough to the beach to give access to any kind of vehicle, including ordinary passenger cars and motorcycles. Shark's Bay became a popular recreation destination, no longer our private beach. With the shine of adventure removed, our trips there had become less frequent and we hadn't been there in months.
Fred signaled Buddy to stop, and we walked to the beach to see what was going on. People gathered in small groups. There was not a single person in the water. The absence of laughter and happy beach noises left a disturbing void. Buddy approached one of the groups to ask what had happened. He learned that a shark had attacked the teenage son of an Italian diplomat. Two other men yanked the boy from the shark's jaws, but not before the shark had bitten through his leg. Friends had carried the victim to their pickup truck and raced off toward Mogadishu, but the truck spun out in the sand and rolled over, throwing the injured boy out of the truck bed. With the help of bystanders they flipped the truck onto its wheels and went on to the hospital in Mog. We heard later that the victim's family arranged to fly him home to Italy for further treatment, but he died before the plane reached Rome.
In the following weeks we heard another horror story about a family who had invited a friend of their eight-year-old daughter to go to Shark's Bay with them. A shark attacked and killed the daughter's friend, biting her poor little body in half.
I couldn't count the number of times we had played in the water at Shark's Bay without ever worrying about sharks, much less seeing one. I wondered if the new road had brought so many people to the beach that the sharks took notice. Someone told us that the sharks were Zambezi River Sharks that had adopted an alternate migration pattern.
We knew about the danger of sharks on Mogadishu's city beaches. No one from the international community dared to wade in the water near town where aggressive sharks attacked in the shallows (except for the two German men who were killed on the day of their arrival, without getting a chance to hear the warnings). Mogadishu had become a busy port through the destruction of a protective reef. The sharks had unobstructed access to the offal dumped into the harbor by the large-scale meat processing plant located there. Now the sharks had discovered our former paradise and it would never again be the safe playground we had enjoyed so much. ###

There's more to the story than just these excerpts -- find the whole adventure in Voluntary Nomads in paperback at (click here ) and Barnes & Noble online (click this ) or digital versions for Kindle, Nook, Sony, Kobo, iReader, all in one convenient location at Smashwords (click now ), or download the PDF for your PC or laptop at Outskirts Press (click away ). So many choices!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bad Luck?

*Today's excerpt from Voluntary Nomads, Part Five: Somali Safaris, Chapter 20.

Bad Luck?
I've heard the saying that bad luck comes in threes. How about sets of three? A spate of misfortune seemed to begin with my first and only visit to the corner tea hut.

Tea huts were common on street corners all over town, residential neighborhoods as well as commercial zones. From a distance our corner tea hut could be mistaken for a wind-blown gargantuan tumbleweed. Its stick and thatch physical construction may have been haphazard, but the social network was tightly woven. Gate guards and domestic employees stopped by every day for a glass of hot, sweet tea and a bit of gossip. Dakota was a frequent patron too; he bought candy there.

"Mom! Come on – I gotta show you something.'" Dakota pulled me by the hand and dragged me out of the house, through the gate, and over to the tea hut.

I followed Dakota into the dim interior, aware of a sudden dampness in my armpits. A dark shape flew at me and dug its claws into my hair and the back of my neck and shoulders. My flailing and screaming only made the thing strengthen its grip. I ran outside. The creature on my back screeched as loud as a demon from hell. Something limber and rough scraped across my calves as I twisted and turned.

"Mom! Mom! Stop!" Dakota couldn't catch up with my spinning flight.

The tea man rescued me. Why was he laughing at my terror? He grabbed the hemp rope that had been slapping my legs and reached toward me with his other hand. My attacker launched itself from my head to the arms of the tea man.

"See? It's only a monkey, geez." Dakota tugged his cap down over his eyes and scuffed his boot in the dirt.

The monkey sneered at my disgrace. I had never felt more foolish.

I slunk home and retreated to the bathroom. I snorted at my reflection in the mirror – red face, wild hair, torn shirt. A shower would fix me up, I thought. But there was no water.

Muttering expletives, I marched outside to check the water pump. Dead as the proverbial doorknob, this was the sixth water pump to burn out in the nine-month life of our new water system. I was too frustrated to notice any numerological significance of the six and nine, multiples of three.

While we waited for the installation of a new water pump for the house, our car broke down. I cleared the dining room table to make room for another session of gasket making. Fred assured me that the file folder and duct tape replica would keep the car running until we could get a replacement water pump from Nairobi, just as Dave's gasket had done the year before. Fine, I thought. What's next? ###

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*Monkey photo courtesy of Free Digital Photos.