Category Archives: Culture shock

How Ya Goin’?

Greetings from Palm Cove Australia, where I am on my own in this country for the first time since arriving 18 days ago.  I am reading the guest information book in my room and under “Swimming” it says:

Crocodiles are occasionally seen off the beaches but generally they inhabit creeks and estuaries that flow into the ocean. They are ambush predators and generally do not actively hunt or expend a lot of energy in the process.

Is this supposed to make me feel safer?

Visitors are discouraged from wading in creeks, waterways and mangroves where water is shallow or knee deep. Visitors should NOT swim in the ocean at night.

I can abide by those guidelines, but apparently others cannot.  Before I left Melbourne my friends were telling me about recent croc deaths. A park ranger was fishing with her family—wading in a shallow creek.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone.  They found her dismembered body a few days later. A German tourist went swimming in a creek that had a sign warning, “NO SWIMMING—CROCODILES.”  It even had a picture of a crocodile with its mouth gaping open, for non-English speakers.  That was his last swim, ever. As I was riding into town on the hotel shuttle, I saw dozens of people fishing and wading in the creeks and mangrove swamps.  What gives? These are probably the same people who would swim in the ocean at night.

The one thing I dreaded about this trip was the 15-hour flight from LA to Sydney. I have to say, it wasn’t that bad.

I had my compression socks, eye mask, ear plugs, down pillow, crossword puzzles, and a book, which I thought might be overkill but the movie selection wasn’t great so I was glad to have it.

I did watch one really good movie, All the Money in the World, about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson.  It starred Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, and his grandson Charlie Plummer as the grandson.  This was the movie Kevin Spacey was cut from after his #MeToo moment.

There was an Aussie sitting next to me on the plane who was returning from a vacation in Mexico.  He raved about Mexico, took a sleeping pill, then didn’t move for 15 hours except when I shook him awake so I could go to the bathroom. It’s interesting how Mexico was exotic to him but he was dreading going back to Australia (and work).  I have spent a lot of time in Mexico and it no longer feels exotic.

And Australia—does it feel exotic?  There have been moments when I thought, “This could be Minnesota.”  Like this view of Heidi’s family’s farm:

But then there were the roos.  These photos aren’t great, but they are candid.

There are other landscapes, of giant gum (eucalyptus) trees that feel alien, in a stunningly beautiful way.

The language is English but they shorten many words (a journalist is a journo, a medic is an ambo) and so much slang that I have often found myself staring blankly at the speaker.  A newly arrived immigrant is a FOB (Fresh off the Boat) and going to hang out with your friends is hooning around.

In the UK I was thrown by the standard greeting, “Ya’ll right?”  In Australia, the greeting is “How ya goin’?” instead of, “How ya doin’?” as we would ask in the US.  Aussies really do say, “G’day”—not everywhere, but here and there and more so in the country.

People are so friendly. Yesterday when I was checking my bag at the airport, the agent told me about her favorite tour here, while hundreds of people waited behind me.  None of them seemed irritated.

Is Australia as expensive as I’d read?  It depends.  Hotels are very reasonable, while meals out are outrageously expensive, and food in groceries is somewhere in between. The American dollar is strong against the Australian, so I get to take 30% off everything.

Heidi and her family have been so welcoming.  Heidi’s Auntie Margaret gave up her flat in Sydney for us to use for a couple nights.  This is the view.  Horrible, huh?

Australia Bound

Twelve hours from now, I will be in Los Angeles waiting for my flight to Sydney. Sydney is 13 hours ahead of LA, and the flight is 15 hours long, so that means in theory I will try to stay awake as long as possible and then sleep the second half, so I will be somewhat rested when I arrive in Australia at 7:30am.

If Lynn is reading this she is probably laughing, because she knows I can barely stay up past 9pm.  But I have been slowly moving my bedtime forward in anticipation of this trip, and last night I was awake until 1:30am—probably for the first time since I was a teenager.

I downloaded an app called Timeshifter that claims to help people shift their wake/sleep schedules ahead of long-haul trips.  I just couldn’t bear the thought of staying indoors with the blinds drawn to block out the sun during the day, and drinking coffee at 3:00 in the morning.  So I deleted the app and concocted a do-it-yourself program. I’m not great at math so I may have it all backwards. I fully expect to get no sleep on the plane and arrive completely exhausted.

As is my habit—and I recommend this to anyone—I use a big trip as a deadline to really get in shape so I will have energy and strength for lifting and pulling bags and walking everywhere—and staying awake.  For the last seven weeks I set a goal for myself to swim for 45 minutes once a week, bike 20 miles a week, lift weights twice, do yoga twice, and walk two or three times.  I am happy to report I stuck to this plan so now I can let myself go.

Yesterday after work I went for a swim even though I Really Did Not Want To.  I am still a crap swimmer.  I have no endurance; rare is the instance I can do the crawl for a full pool length. I always tell myself, “It’s okay to go slow” but that gives me the sensation I am sinking.  So then I flail and thrash about and am soon winded.  I do a half dog paddle, half crawl the rest of the way, gasping for breath.

Which brings me to the What Ifs.  What if my lousy swimming is due to having undiagnosed lung cancer?  As usual, I think about all the possible things that could go wrong before or during a big trip.  This is not helped by the half dozen comments I’ve received from well-meaning people warning me about crocodiles, sharks, and poisonous things in the desert.

What about you?  Would you rather be attacked by a shark or a croc?  I’d take a shark any day.  I think it would be a quick death, whereas crocs pull you under water while you’re still alive and munch on you at their leisure.  Plus, you can punch or kick a shark and maybe they’ll back off, or at least that’s the lore.

But my mind is not limited to savage wild animal attacks.  What if I stub my toe and break it today, and the doctor says I cannot fly with a broken bone?    What if someone hacks into my bank accounts while I’m camping in the desert and cleans me out?  What if someone breaks into my house while I’m away and steals…my plants or my 10-year-old TV?

Most dreaded of all: What if my flight turns into another Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

While all this is whirling around in my head I will carry on doing what needs to be done, including putting my plants in the bathtub so they’ll live without me for a month, fishing the goldfish out of the backyard pond and delivering them to a neighbor who has a year-round pond, calling my mother, going for a walk, packing, unplugging all my appliances, and cleaning out my car because I am renting it to someone while I’m gone.

What an exciting life I lead!  I really am fortunate.  Even if the plane does go into a death spiral over French Polynesia, I will have had a fantastic time up until then.

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.

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.

Beautiful City in a Sad World

Colombia has been in the news lately in the US.  Last night there was this story on the PBS News Hour about the election, which is taking place the day this posts.  Near the end, it talks about all the activists who have been threatened—and more than 50 who have been killed—in the ongoing conflict for power.

So I wasn’t overreacting when I worried about our tour guide in Bogota being at risk.  I wrote that Lynn and I would follow him on Facebook and maybe raise a stink if anything happened to him but in reality, what could we really do?  If he suddenly stopped posting, what would we do—call the police in Colombia?  I’m sure they would get a good laugh out of that.  We could contact Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.  I don’t know.  It’s another thing to worry about, along with all the plastic in the ocean and the violence in Gaza and Russian interference in the US elections.

Just for fun, I made a list of the first three titles of emails I saw in a typical morning at work:

And here is a sampling of my daily dose of funding opportunities from the US government:

  • Bureau of International Narcotics-Law Enforcement, Combating Wildlife Trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Health Services and Economic Research on the Treatment of Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Use
  • National Technical Assistance Resource Center for the Prevention of Sexual Violence
  • Investigation of the Transmission of Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus
  • NIH Collaborative Cross Mouse Model Generation and Discovery of Immunoregulatory Mechanisms

That last one is kind of amusing, until you really think about what will happen to the poor mouse.

In one of my daily international news digests this week, there was an article (behind a paywall so I can’t provide a link) about the Colombian government conducting a census of Venezuelan refugees. A few excerpts:

“Exact numbers of people who have arrived are hard to come by and it is difficult to ascertain if people intend to stay in Colombia or move to another country in South America or the Caribbean.

“The lack of accurate data influences the way the United States State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and NGOs can plan for and respond to the crisis, a problem the Colombian government hopes the census will help solve. According to [Felipe] Muñoz, there are 30,000 Venezuelan children in the Colombian public school system, and 25,000 in the child care system. Twenty-five thousand Venezuelans have been provided free medical care by Colombia’s public health system.

“The Colombian government also intends to set up a formal process for Colombians who had fled their own country during a decades-long civil war for Venezuela, but now seek to return home. This includes children that have a parent from each country but were born in Venezuela and do not have Colombian identity papers.

‘They have the right to be Colombian,’ Muñoz said.”

This almost makes me weep.  What a contrast between how Colombia, where the average monthly salary is $692, treats refugees vs. my country—where the average monthly salary is $3,428.

We are a country living with an epidemic of fear and hatred.

Lynn and I slept the sleep of the dead after our five-hour drive and two-hour walking tour.

Breakfast was on the rooftop restaurant, which had great views.  That’s the Cathedral in the distance.

We noted that the hotel had witch points on some of the rooflines.  Nora had told us this was a Colonial-era building requirement by the Catholic Church—to keep witches out of buildings.  I guess it works, because we never saw a witch, inside or out.

Soon we were out on the street.  Here’s the Cathedral again, in the distance.  Such a beautiful city.

The interior was cool and quiet.

Lynn led us on to Iglesia San Pedro Claver.  St. Peter Claver, as we know him in the US, was a priest from Barcelona, the first saint of the new world, and—so the legend goes—a champion of slaves.