Author Archives: Breaking Free

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

Road Trips, Fireworks, and Kittens

I’ve written about snorkeling in Belize, hiking in Petra, learning Spanish in Mexico, working in Istanbul and Ramallah, and the biggest adventure of all, visiting my son in prison.

But I’m also a proponent of finding adventure closer to home.  After all, you can’t travel internationally 365 days a year, although I’d like to test that assumption.

So on Tuesday I drove 260 miles (418 kilometers) to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin.  The speed limit for most of the route is 70MPH (113KPH).  On the plus side, the road is smooth, the scenery is pretty, and I just found out I have cruise control—after owning my car for over a year.  I set it to 76 in honor of the Independence Day holiday.

I90 was congested with semi trucks.  There are a lot of disturbing billboards for truck stop porno shops along the way.  Is that all truckers do when they don’t have their hands on a steering wheel?  Ugh.

This was the route Lynn and I took two years ago on our way to New Orleans.  This post describes some of the exciting places we visited, like the Cranberry Discovery Center and Jellystone Park.

I stopped at a wayside rest and learned about sphagnum moss, including how to spell it.

I somehow tore myself away from this fascinating info-plaque and drove on.

Madison is half the size of St. Paul-Minneapolis.  It has a Top 10 public university where I met one of my nieces for happy hour.  She’s always been a great person and she’s even better now because she’s doing what young adults are supposed to do in college.  I don’t mean studying.  I mean figuring out how to be an adult.  How to manage friendships, romantic relationships, inner turmoil, outer turmoil, etc.

A few hours later, my cousin and I went to Hyvee for dinner because his wife, who was exhausted from her work as a physical therapist, wanted to rest and asked him to bring her a to-go Cobb salad.

When Hyvee opened in St. Paul, people acted as if it was the second coming of Christ.  I don’t get it.  It’s just another grocery store with all the same processed food but presented beautifully. We had the all-you-can-eat “Chinese” buffet and I can tell you, they should have paid me $8.99 to eat the execrable crap they passed off as Chicken Stir Fry.  The chicken was rubbery and looked suspiciously as if it had been extruded from a machine.  But I wolfed it down because I hadn’t eaten since happy hour, where I had ordered a large basket of deep-friend cauliflower. It was terrible.  I ate every crumb.

Back at his house, my cousin and I sat on the porch in the dark, slapping mosquitoes and talking about politics and our childhoods—we grew up three houses apart so we feel more like siblings than cousins. He’s a radio journalist and just about ready to hang it up in this political climate.  “Working at Hyvee looked really appealing,” he remarked.

The next day we drove through the arboretum, had breakfast at a place called Barriques and a few hours later lunch at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. Then we spent an hour at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.  How had I never been there?  I’ve been to many botanical gardens around the world, and this was one of the best.

Then it was back on the road, just in time to arrive home for 4th of July fireworks.  You may have read that people who have lived through war can be re-traumatized by the sounds of fireworks. Well I live in a neighborhood of many Southeast Asian immigrants and last night it was like trying to sleep through the Vietnam war.  I could hear my neighbors yelling and shouting in Hmong in between what sounded like cannon blasts until 1:30 am.

I finally gave up on sleep and got up, only to find an animal adventure under my dining room table, where my latest foster cat was in the process of giving birth.  I sat with her, stroking her head.  It was a rough night, but here they are this morning, six in a pile.  Worth it.

The Big Bad

Today is the first day of a nine-day staycation for me. I have never taken a staycation, but I need one.  I need time to plan my sojourn in Oceania, time to enjoy solstice season while it lasts, and time to take a look at my finances to see if I can afford to move to another country.

More about that in a bit.

I had an epiphany this week.  As you know if you’ve been reading for a while, I have visited many of the world’s ancient sites.  Tikal, Petra, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Delphi, etc.  I have sometimes come away feeling a comforting sense of connection to all of humanity.  Deep, huh?

More often, I’ve come away thinking, “Whoever built this magnificent site is long dead, and no one knows his name.”  In some cases I may have been able to learn a name if I had dug hard enough or if there was a plaque, but I’d forget it 10 minutes later.

I used to find that sort of sad.  The lesson?  Nothing we do matters in the long run.

But this week I suddenly found it comforting.

In a thousand years, Donald Trump will be a footnote, if not forgotten. Sure, maybe there will be millions of references to him in ancient news articles on servers somewhere, but only students of the classics will be interested.

Maybe he will even become a mythical beast.  Long into the future, a mather (because by then genders will have merged) will be reading a book … no.  Someday, a mather and its child will be immersed in a virtual reality bedtime story thanks to nanoparticle thin films, and little Apple (because old fashioned names will have come back into style by then) will squeal, “Mather, please can we be in the story about the Trump?!”

“Are you sure you won’t get too frightened again?” Mather will ask.

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“Which scenario do you want—The Trump Goes a’Doddering, or Trump and the Seven Dictators, or …”

“The one with the Space Force!” cries Apple.

“The one where we can strap him to a rocket and shoot him to the moon?”
“Yes! Yes! That one!”

“Okay, but remember, dear—it’s just a story. It’s not real.”

If only it weren’t. This regime is causing a lot of human suffering but in the long run, it will be consigned to “the dustbin of history” like others before it.

So in addition to planning a long trip to Australia, I’ve been researching ways to live outside the US.  This book has been really helpful.  It was published in 2012 so it’s somewhat dated, but it’s giving me lots of food for thought and helping me narrow down my choices.

I got this in the mail this week.

Europe?  How about America?  And being Jewish eliminates a half dozen of the 60 countries profiled in the book.  Caring about human rights, not being rich, being environmentally conscious, wanting access to health care, being able to get back to Minnesota within 24 hours, etc. all are helping me narrow it down.

I have two routes to acquire long-term visas:

  • Many countries have retirement visas. You don’t necessarily have to be anywhere near retirement age; you have to show that you meet some minimum threshold of income. The idea is, you won’t be taking a job away from a local resident and you’ll be spending money in the country on rent, food, etc.  The cost of living is multiples lower than that in the US.
  • Working remotely. As I did last summer in Britain, I can continue to work and be paid by my US employer if they allow it. Again, I wouldn’t be taking a local job and I’d be spending money locally.  The rules about this are much murkier, maybe because working remotely is still a new concept to rusty bureaucracies.

Frommer’s “easy” guide to Australia is 317 pages long.

I haven’t made much progress except I did start swimming lessons so I can get scuba certified.  Heidi has warned me however, about “stinger season near the reef and crocodile season in the centre.”

At least there won’t be any Trumps.

Going Down

I’m going to reduce my blogging for the summer to one post a week.  It’s summer in Minnesota, which is very sweet, and very fleeting.

In addition, I’ve just got permission to work remotely again, like I did in the UK last year, and I need planning time.

My friend Heidi, who I met in London in 2007, is now back in Australia caring for her parents.  What a great opportunity to spend time with her in her home environment and see Australia through her eyes.  She lived in London for almost two decades and traveled extensively around Europe and North America, so she’s got perspective, too.

As long as I am going all that way, it seemed logical to try to stay a while, to wander around Australia, New Zealand, maybe Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga …

I’ve been mostly stockpiling my vacation time since last summer.  It’s easier not to use it because I work 90% time, which works out to two unpaid days off per month.  When I went to Colombia I only had to use three vacation days.

Now that our busy proposal season is winding down at work, I’ve reduced my hours to 80%. One of the benefits of working for a non-profit is that they’re always looking for ways to save money.  Allowing an employee to work less—someone they know is responsible and will still get her work done within reduced hours—is a win-win.

So I’ll be gone seven weeks, working one day a week on average to keep on top of things, to keep things moving that need my attention.

As I’ve written before, I can only afford to do this because I have no debt and I live cheaply.  This wasn’t always true—until about 10 years ago I had student loans, a car loan, a mortgage payment, and a credit card balance.  If there’s one thing to prioritize in your financial life, it’s paying off as much debt as possible.  It may seem insurmountable at the beginning; it did to me.  It took years.  It requires sacrifices.  But it can be done.  And what a feeling of liberation.

I’d like to claim I paid off my mortgage.  I didn’t.  I sold my condo, I pay rent now, and that will never go away.  But I am lucky to have found a nice place with very reasonable rent. It’s not in a premium location.  The commute sucks. I don’t have off street parking.  But hey, I just bought a round-trip ticket to Sydney!

Still, Australia is expensive and Oceania is vast. The Australia guide book I got from the library is two inches thick.  I need time this summer to plan ahead, string out purchases of bus or train fares, airfares, lodging, and tours.  Heidi and I spent an hour workshopping on What’s App last weekend.  She’ll have a two-week break from teaching, and we’ll go to Melbourne to visit some other London friends who teach at an Aboriginal Girls’ School.

What should I do in the remaining five weeks?

My head is swirling.  Should I rent a car?  I have a phobia of driving on the other side of the road.  The guide says trains are expensive. But Heidi says they’re not any more expensive than in the UK.  A co-worker advised that New Zealand deserves at least two weeks, and that’s just the south island.  I have a Kiwi friend who lives in France and she’s putting me in touch with her brother who lives in Nelson and might put me up.  A Minnesota friend, has a cousin who runs a resort on Tonga.  Should I go there?

I’ve spent hours trolling Responsible Travel’s website.  They’ve got a budget vacation where you can swim with humpback whales in Tonga.  Dang.  I don’t know how to swim.  I spend a week day dreaming about taking a freighter around French Polynesia.  Oops, it’s 6,000 miles from Sydney to Tahiti, where that trip starts.  Maybe a yoga retreat in Fiji?  But all the photos show women who look like Athleta models.

I was glad to see that Responsible Travel offers plastic-free holidays.

If you have suggestions, please share!

Back to the US of A

In Getsemani, we took photos of the brightly-painted houses.

And fantastic murals.

“It’s almost too perfect,” I remarked to Lynn.  Everywhere I turned was a beautifully-composed photo.  If you can’t take great photos in Cartagena, you can’t take them anywhere.

Even a corner store offered a photo opp of “Still Life with Egg Cartons.”

It was Saturday night and the streets were thronged with people out for a good time.  Who knew who was a tourist and who lived here?

“Air BnB is ruining Cartagena,” Nora had said.  “Rich people are buying places to rent to tourists and Cartagenans cannot afford to live in the center anymore.”  I’ve heard similar laments from Amsterdam to Venice.

We passed through a bustling square with restaurants and bars.  “Want to eat here?” Lynn asked.

It was almost completely dark and there were few streetlights, but naturally I said, “Nah … let’s walk around a bit before it’s pitch dark.  Maybe we can find more photo opps.”

Lynn agreed so we stepped off into a side street.  “Let’s use the trick we used yesterday,” Lynn suggested.  “Where we just keep taking right turns so we can’t get lost.”

“Good thinking.”

But of course the streets in Getsemani weren’t straight, or thoroughfares, and within 10 minutes we were lost.  There were streetlights, but half of them were broken.  People were hanging out drinking and playing cards on the sidewalks.  Murals had been replaced by ugly graffiti.  There was trash, broken and boarded up windows, and mangy dogs wandered past menacingly.  The smell of pot was everywhere.  There was no doubt that this was not a tourist area.

“If we were in Africa,” Lynn said under her breath, “This is when we would hear the drums getting nearer and nearer.”

I laughed.  We smiled at the people we passed, who were staring at us as if to say, “You’ve taken over the rest of our city.  This is our patch.  Just let us enjoy our Saturday night socializing in peace.”

We spent 15 minutes walking through a completely dark, deserted warehouse district.  “If we were in Mississippi,” I said, “This is when we would hear the hound dogs baying, closer and closer.”

After much drama in our heads, we emerged onto the square where we’d started.

“See?!” proclaimed Lynn, “Going in a circle worked, eventually.”

We ate at a nondescript Italian restaurant that had a nice outdoor patio.  I needed to use the bathroom but judging from the exterior it appeared to be a latrine.  Finally I plucked up my courage and entered.  It was a regular indoor bathroom, which I actually found a bit disappointing, but it did have this mysterious sign:

Do Not Point to the Toilet?  Do Not Shoot a Gun Down the Toilet? Do Not Throw a Brick in the Toilet?

And as always, too soon, it was time to go home.  A driver picked me up at 10:30 the next morning; Lynn would begin her arduous return via Amsterdam later in the day.  The airport was only five minutes from the center.

This sign left no room for interpretation.

“Drug trafficking is punishable by pain of death or life imprisonment in China, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Indonesia, Malaysia, and 28 other countries.”

In Miami, I went through immigration and customs and then walk-ran to get from the last gate on D concourse to Gate E16, as indicated on the American website.

I followed the signs for E 2-33.  When I reached E11, the next gate was E20.

“E16?” I asked two American Airlines agents.

“There is no Gate E16,” they replied dismissively.  I showed them the screen shot and they doubled down, acting as though I had made it up somehow. American—the airline that dragged that poor man off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat for no reason.

The video system went down midflight so, since the same had happened on my arrival flight, I never saw the end of The Color of Water.   They offered free drinks, so I had a beer and chatted with my seatmate.

“Isn’t Colombia a third world country?!” she asked.  “I’m not a racist—I have mi-norities in my family.”

Edens and Getsemani

Our tour of San Pedro Claver over, we tipped Charles generously—at least I hope he thought it was generous.  He had clearly poured years of his life into learning everything about St. Peter and his namesake church.

Before we left, he scribbled on some scraps of paper and handed them to us along with some business cards.  The business cards were for his cousin’s store, which sells Handy Crafts.

“My cousin, Fabiola, you can tell her I sent you to get a discount.”  The scrap of paper had his contact details on it.  If you ever go to Cartagena and want a personal tour of St. Peter Claver Church, ask for Charles, aka Carlos Arturo Pelaez Martinez, and tell him Anne sent you and you want your discount.

We wandered out into the blinding, blistering hot sun.  In the square, this woman was posing for tourists with a bowl of fruit on her head.  I really hate things like this, but I took a photo and gave her 10,000 pesos.  It felt a bit like I was photographing a zoo animal.  The irony of us being in the former Black Market wasn’t lost on me.  Did her costume have any cultural significance?  She wasn’t interested in talking.  She needed to sell as many photos as she could, literally—Snap Snap!—to make a living.  I guess it was better than working in a factory.

Lynn and I always try to hit a grocery store when we travel. In Colombia, we were fixated on buying some of the crunchy corn kernels—sold in the US as Corn Nuts—which we’d had on salads and in ceviche and soups here.

I don’t know which is more disturbing.  The thought of wiping myself with a white rabbit or that “Exito” means “success.”  An interesting name for toilet paper.

This ranks up with the “Colonial” brand cigarettes I saw in Belize.  I mean really—what was the thinking on the marketing team when they came up with the brand name Dictator for a Latin American rum?  “I’m telling you Jorge, dictators are hot.”  Note that in one photo the man is dressed in a suit with a George Michael beard and in the other he is shirtless and clean shaven.

We found our corn nuts and went to find lunch.

It seems like it’s hard to go wrong in the search for good food in Colombia, especially if you enjoy seafood.  We found a ceviche restaurant and settled in.  There was no point in rushing around the city in this heat.

Being a plant lover, I appreciated that plants, vines, and flower arrangements were incorporated into the décor everywhere in Colombia.

The ceviche didn’t disappoint, although I thought half a pita and Saltine crackers were interesting choices for accompaniments.  I associate Saltines with being broke or nauseous.

The sign on the ladies’ room door.  Again with the fruit hat.  If a restaurant in Minneapolis used this sign, there would be protests that it was racist or at the very least, a case of cultural appropriation.  But this restaurant was owned and operated by Black Caribbeans, so there.

After lunch we returned to the hotel and I headed straight for the pool.  If you’re not a water person, you don’t understand the pure bliss of being in water in the sunshine, surrounded by plants and two very noisy parakeets in a big cage.  I don’t really even know how to swim but I can splash around in a pool for hours.  I ordered a print of this photo and keep it on my desk at work.  I escape here when I need to.

Our last evening in Colombia.  Nora had suggested only one thing—Getsemani—a bohemian neighborhood.

“It looks like all we have to do is cross a street,” I said to Lynn as I consulted the map.

Riiiiiight,” she drawled sarcastically.

But we got clever and left a trail of bread crumbs in the form of photos.

From one side of the clock tower to the other, dusk fell that fast.  With any luck it would be lit up after dark, right?

 

Saving the Slaves

Our last full day in Colombia.  It was 10 in the morning and already scorching hot in Cartagena.  Lynn and I stepped into the foyer of San Pedro Claver Church; it was cool and dark.  We made our way to some sort of service desk, where a young man was immersed in praying the rosary.  A glass case contained items for sale: Crucifixes, rosaries, scapulars.   In case you don’t know, scapulars are stamp-sized images of saints and such joined by a ribbon and worn around the neck under one’s clothes.  These are a couple images from discountcatholicproducts.com.

I’m not sure if they’re for good luck or protection or what.

A man stepped up to us from seemingly out of nowhere and I did a double take because in the dimness I thought for a nanosecond he was my long-dead grandfather, Ralph.  He was thin and olive-skinned with slicked down black hair and thick black glasses, and he smelled like tobacco.

He introduced himself as Charles, and launched into a breakneck Spanglish spiel with some French and German thrown in just to keep us on our toes.

“I have studied in France and Italy and Eeenglahterrrrra,” he told us.  He offered to be our guide for a small fee.  And it really was small; I don’t recall how much it was but he showed us around for over an hour and showed us some places I was pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be.

Even so, he didn’t waste any time.  Charles marched us out of the foyer into the main sanctuary and began pointing.  “This stained glass, she is from Italy,” he recited.  “And this eh-statue, she is from Germany.  All the things you see, they are gifts from other countries.”

Maybe because it was a mish-mash of donated features from European countries, the sanctuary wasn’t particularly beautiful.  The dome was pretty.

The altar had something glowing orange … yes, that’s …

… the bones of St. Peter, who died of Parkinson’s in 1654.

My personal favorite work of art in the sanctuary was this painting depicting a priest converting Chinese, Japanese and Indian heathens all in one go.  The Taj Mahal is in the background.  Nice!

Charles led us onward at a brisk pace, walking and talking.

There was a gallery with an incredible collection of religious and other art, including African carvings and contemporary marble statues.  All of it, even the centuries-old wood sculptures and oil paintings were just there, in the extreme heat and humidity, with stray cats wandering around.

This was a Hall of Bishops or some such.

As Charles waved his hands around, naming every single potentate, I could tell from Lynn’s body language that she was not excited.  When you’ve seen these types of places in Italy, France, and every other European capital, one glowering bishop looks much like another.

This was St. P. in his hunky youth.

Charles kept up a stream of commentary as Lynn and I wandered around the gallery.  I liked this French altar with all-seeing eye at the apex, like on a dollar bill.

Some of the Jesus figures could have been modeled on indigenous people.

There were a number of miracle-performing virgins, some as old as 16th Century.

There was a lovely courtyard.

And the usual dead people everywhere in the walls and floors.  Charles said his parents were among the dead, and that it was only the bones that were interred. What happened to the rest I didn’t want to know.

The upper floor, where St. Peter lived.

The saint’s bedroom.  “He was so humble, he slept on the floor,” Charles said.

You could say St. Peter filled a niche.

Some of the art was very much in the”white savior” genre.

Three hundred thousand slaves were baptized in this font.

“St. Peter, he was a friend to the slaves that were bought and sold in the Black Market,” Charles said.

A friend.  St. Peter had baptized slaves, but had he fed them or advocated for abolition? Charles indicated that St. Peter had ruffled the feathers of the slave traders, which was good, but as usual, I came away with more questions than when I’d started.