Category Archives: Joie de vivre

Caravans and Bunkhouses

Last week I wrote a Facebook post which went sort-of viral:

Long post but important, I think.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It’s important to know that asylum seekers Are Not Eligible to receive government benefits (no subsidized housing, no food stamps, no welfare, etc.) and they also are Not Allowed to work in the US for five months after their arrival.  

Most of the people in the so-called caravan in Mexico are hoping to claim asylum. They have the right to do so under international law. That Does Not Mean they will be granted asylum; the process can take years, and only 10% will be approved.

Asylum seekers are people who have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, and otherwise abused by their own governments, militias, gangs, police, etc. This may have been because they were fighting government corruption, organizing small businesses or unions, they were related to someone who was doing these things, they were the wrong religion or ethnic group, or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How would you survive for five months if you weren’t allowed to work and you couldn’t get any public benefits? While they wait for their cases to be heard, asylum seekers literally depend on the kindness of strangers. Many clients of my organization, the Center for Victims of Torture, depend on two local religious orders, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Friars, for housing. When you are thinking about year-end donations, think about contributing to one of them.

I don’t know why this particular post spurred people to share it.  When I started working where I work, I remember being shocked that asylum seekers could not work or get government benefits.

“But how do they survive?” I asked one of our social workers.

“Barely, that’s how,” she replied. She explained that they go from couch to couch in the homes of friends of friends who belong to their same nationality, or they sleep in homeless shelters, because there’s no way the Sisters of St. Joseph and Franciscan Friars can house all of them. “You can imagine,” she continued, “how stressful it is for someone who’s been tortured and is having flashbacks and is afraid of being sent back—how stressful it is to be in a homeless shelter, with people yelling and fighting with each other.”

Heidi and I arrived at Ayers Rock Airport, located in Yulara, a five-hour drive from Alice Springs.

Here, I would have a comical flashback to my son’s time in prison.

Heidi, with the help of her sister—a travel agent—had planned this whole thing.  I had followed Heidi’s instructions to bring only a backpack. She had also urged me to bring a pair of shoes I wouldn’t mind tossing when we left, since rugged hiking and the red dust would destroy any footwear but hiking boots.  I don’t own boots and I didn’t have time to break in a new pair.

A bus took us to Ayers Rock Resort, which holds a monopoly on accommodations in the centre.  There is every level of price and comfort, from a luxury hotel to caravan park, all owned by the same people.

Heidi had booked us in to a bunkhouse.  “I reckoned we’re only here one night, so how bad could it be?”

It was actually named the “Pioneer Lodge.”  There’s a reason they don’t show photos of the interiors on the website.

These people are outside because, well, who would want to spend any time inside?

 

“I feel like we’re in an episode of Orange is the New Black,” I commented as we surveyed the place.

“We’ll certainly get our thirty-eight dollars’ worth,” quipped Heidi.  It was, indeed, only for one night—this was an adventure.

We “fought” over who would sleep up top with the giant pipe.  Heidi sleeps through the night, while I get up several times to use the bathroom.  “You can’t climb down that ladder in the dark,” she insisted.

“I could hold a flashlight in my teeth,” I suggested feebly.  Heidi didn’t get much sleep, since the pipe turned out to be a hot air pipe.

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

You never know what you’re going to get.

One moment my passport was in my bag, the next moment it wasn’t.   Did someone steal it?  Did it fall out somewhere?  I have no idea and I have covered so much ground it’d be fruitless to go looking.  I’ve torn apart my room and suitcase five times over but no luck.

My advice to you: Never lose your passport.  It’s a real hassle. Um, that’s an understatement.

Last week I added a night to my stay on the Queensland coast to spend more time near the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree rainforest, and the ocean, the jungle, and just enjoy the slow pace of this area, after go-go-going for three weeks around Australia.

I have to show up in Sydney to get a new one.  So I’ve cancelled two nights here in the north and changed my flight to Sydney for 5am on Wednesday to arrive there in time for the only appointment that was available in the next 10 days at the US consulate.  I filed a police report and cancelled my passport (maybe, the online system told me I had “no passports to report stolen or lost”). I am filling out forms and finding a hotel in Sydney at the last minute (not a cheap proposition!).

I am lucky.  I have a credit card, a driver’s license, and access to cash, which makes all things easier.  I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a stateless person and have no friends or resources.  It’d be scary as hell.

I am eating a veggie pizza and drinking some wine.  I could spend my last day here obsessing about all this in my hotel room, but I am going out to the reef tomorrow to snorkle.

This too, is an adventure.  I hope it ends well.

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.

Summer Summary, the End

For the past decade, summers have been capped off with a family gathering in northern Wisconsin at a resort called Garmisch USA.  This is to distinguish it from Garmisch, Germany.

Garmisch USA was the brainchild of a series of Chicago lumber barons and their heirs, starting at the turn of the last century.  One heir, Jean Funk, had traveled the world and came back eager to recreate what she had seen.  Here she is, posing on the Queen Mary with her mother and in front of a bistro in Paris.

Garmisch is comprised of a lodge and about 20 “cabins,” if you consider this a cabin.

The “cabins” are named Blarney Castle (above), Chateau des Alpes, Edelweiss Haus, Schwaben Haus, and The Beetle, which is where we congregated thanks to my aunt’s generosity.

The Beetle looks normal from the outside.

There are two levels, each with bedrooms, a kitchen, and living area.  The kitchens look normal.

But turn around, and you’ll wonder if someone slipped LSD into your beer.

Jean must have traveled through Africa and the South Pacific, too, and brought home treasures to incorporate into Garmisch.  There are shelves and glass-fronted display cases full of souvenirs, including this uniform.  Swiss?  German? Hitler Youth?

There are closets galore, an elevator, and a hidden trap door that leads to two vast unfinished third-floor rooms full of surprises.

The grounds are sprinkled with out buildings overrun by chipmunks.

And creepy figurines, and a cannibal cauldron.

But we’re there for the family time on Lake Kabetogama.

We sat inside during the rain and talked and ate and read and played Scrabble.  When the sun was out a dozen people took the pontoon to fish and swim and gape at other enormous cabins.  We hiked and kayaked and made bonfires.  Some of us went into town to the farmer’s market and some went to my niece’s baby-naming ceremony at Lac Courte Oreilles reservation.  She and her partner and the baby are missing from this photo, otherwise there would be 17 of us.

Boy, am I ever short.  I wonder if I am shrinking or if my niece, whose shoulders I am holding, is getting taller.

No Minnesota summer is complete without a day frittered away at the State Fair.  Dubbed “The Great Minnesota Get Together,” this is your chance to socialize with two million of your neighbors in the heat and rain and to enjoy gourmet delights such as deep-fried pickles on a stick.

I arrived early to hit the booth of a local spectacle store that had advertised State Fair specials. I need a new pair of glasses and I found some great frames on sale.  After figuring in my three prescriptions (reading, computer, and driving), UV protection, antiglare, and tax, I walked away having blown the better part of a paycheck.

I met some friends and we partook in craft beers, then perused the crop art in the Horticulture Building.  Yes, all of these are made of seeds.  Winters are long on the prairie and people must amuse themselves somehow.

We swung through the Dairy Building to gaze upon the climate-controlled, revolving butter-busts of the Fair Princesses, including Princess Kay of the Milky Way.

Then it was on to the livestock pavilions.  Really, it’s a wonder these poor animals don’t die of terror after 12, 12-hour days being poked and prodded by strangers (We were there on the last day and the rabbits were being readied for transportation back to their farm; they were in larger cages during the fair).

We swung through the Department of Natural Resources for photo ops with Smoky the Bear, who turns 50 this year.  I know he’s not real, but a girl can dream. Tall, dark, and furry….

Evening began to fall, and do did the rain, as I met another group of friends for the concert in the Grandstand: the Thomson Twins (but only one of them), the B52s, and Boy George and Culture Club.

Boy George’s makeup can only be described as satanic.  His response to the audience, was “Wha’ di’jer expect?  I’m Boy Fucking George!”  It was great.

And that was my summer. Eight more sleeps, then I’m Australia bound.

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.

Marmot in Medellin

It’s a good thing I friended our Bogota tour guide on Facebook, or I might not have known he was featured in a New York Times article about the city this week.  Here’s what it said about him:

“Cyclists here often seem as abundant as cars, streaming down equally abundant protected paths. Bogotá is credited as the first city to host a Ciclovía — and it still does, shutting down large swaths of street every Sunday for bikers, pedestrians and even acrobats.

“Itching to get on two wheels, I joined a three-hour ride that offered a fascinating look at the city through the eyes of our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas, a graffiti artist and passionate enemy of inequality. He told us about Justin-Bieber-gate, when the Canadian singer tagged a wall under police protection just a few months after the police had shot and killed a popular graffiti artist — and inadvertently sparked a street artist uprising.”

If Michael told us that he, himself, was a graffiti artist, I missed it.  But it fits.

Back to Medellin.

The four of us sat around the lounge drinking coffee and waiting for our guide to arrive.

“Mota!” Roxana exclaimed, beaming at me from across the table.  Mota, short for marmota, meaning marmot, because I sleep a lot.  Roxana’s pet name for me.

Roxana and I met at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health where I was the director of development and she was the development assistant—a position for which she was way overqualified.  We soon spent our weekly meetings talking about our personal lives.  I was a hot mess.  My son was in jail, homeless, or missing much of the time due to his addictions.  I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was injecting myself with steroids every day.  I had such extreme vertigo at times that I couldn’t open my eyes or sit up.  I wasn’t able to focus on my job and my employment was precarious as a result. I either had insomnia or slept for 12-hour stretches.  Thus the marmota moniker. Roxana was like a mother to me during those dark days.

Finally, to everyone’s relief including mine, I was fired.  I went back to grad school, got a part time, completely flexible grad fellowship, and started to travel.  First I went to Mexico for a week to study Spanish.  It was such an exhilarating experience that I went back for three weeks, then three months.  My MS symptoms disappeared.  Eventually I was told there had been a mistake, that I didn’t have MS after all.  Now, I’m not saying that MS is just a symptom of stress.  Most people with MS really have MS, an extremely serious condition.  I got lucky and was misdiagnosed.

“When you first came to Scotland,” Lynn said, as we discussed how we had all met each other, “Richard was sure you had survived cancer or some terrible accident, because you had such zeal to see and experience everything. And you took all those pills.”

“Oh, those pills were just supplements that gave me expensive urine,” I said.  “And Richard wasn’t far off.  I did live for two years with that MS misdiagnosis. I thought I would be in a wheelchair within five years.”

That was 18 years ago.  When Roxana went through her divorce, I got to mother her.  Now that we’re both in good places we mostly talk about books, movies, politics, our families, and of course, travel.  She works two jobs and has built her own translation business so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like.

I was excited to spend two whole days with Roxana and Lynn, and for them to get to know one another.

I had met Ricardo over one of many excellent dinners in Peru, where Roxana had been my excellent guide.  He reminds me of an old-time movie star like Cary Grant.  He’s smart, funny, and well traveled.  He worked for the Peru Tourism Board for years and is now with Regus , which rents out office space on an as-needed basis.

Our guide, Daniella, arrived.  She was a serious young woman, but she lighted up when she learned Roxana and Ricardo were Peruvian.  She was going to Peru the following week, so our guide would be getting tourist tips from her tourists.

Lost and Lonach

Three days left in Scotland, then home to Minnesota to sleep in my own bed for one night. The next day I would drive to northern Wisconsin to a resort called Garmisch USA that some heiress from Chicago had built to resemble the German town of Garmisch, with an “Irish Castle” thrown in.

The giant carved androgynous figure at the entrance?  It’s anyone’s guess what that’s about.

This would be the annual cousins’ weekend in a big cabin on a lake, sponsored by my aunt.  I so look forward to it every year.  We would eat, read, make bonfires, take the boat out and fish, eat, play Scrabble, talk, hike, eat, and not sleep much.  It would feel surreal, being in Scotland one day and at this resort two days later.

But first I had to push myself to finish the attic, my second proposal, and the book by my new favorite author, Kazuo Ishiguro. How had I never read him?  Lynn and Richard had two or three of his novels in their library, and I started with the most famous, The Remains of the Day.  I am a big reader, and I found Ishiguro’s character, the butler Stevens, one of the most movingly described characters I’ve ever read described.  I bought two more of Ishiguro’s books at Heathrow and as I was plowing through them at home, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  I felt like a genius.

There were a few more excursions to fit in.  We took Lord Parker and drove around, first stopping at a ruined church.

There was a sad plaque in honor of a 15-year-old soldier killed in WWI.

We visited a Pictish tel.  A tel is a hill composed of layers of settlements.  I had only ever heard tell of tels (ha ha) in Israel, where you have the Romans building on top of the Arameans, who had conquered and built on top of the Whosiwhatsits, and on and on.  Don’t bother looking up “Whosiwhatsits,” I just made that up.

Nearby was this road sign.  I’m fairly certain I am not the first person to have my photo taken in front of it.

“It has to be done,” Lynn commented.

There was yet another war memorial plaque, to the Gordon Highlanders, nearby.  In the US, it seems you have to go to Washington, DC or a state capitol to see war memorials.  They  are ubiquitous in Britain—in parks, street corners, and department stores.  I prefer the British approach.  We should be reminded about the cost of war all the time, everywhere we go.

The following day Richard dropped me off in town to get a haircut at Cassie’s salon. My stylist had extremely short, brassy red, spiked hair.

“I’ll just have a trim,” I stated unequivocally.  She went to work and talked away but I could only understand about half of it.

Another customer was seated in the chair next to me and when I heard her Spanish accent I asked, “Are you Maria?”  And it was Maria, the Peruvian wife of Lynn and Richard’s friend Nigel.  They had met when he was working on an oil company project in Peru.  We chatted, then Nigel came in with their nine-month-old son, and Nigel and I chatted.

The hair cut was good and it only cost £9—about $12!

The next day Richard and I went to the Lonach Games. There are Highland games all over Scotland, but I’d like to believe that the Lonach Games were the best.  They’ve been an annual event for 175 years and are a source of much local pride.  The men start early in the day and march in clans, playing the bagpipes and drums, from one town to another for hours, stopping for “wee drams” along the way.  Their grand entrance onto the grounds in the early afternoon is a highlight of the games.

There was lots of piping, dancing, and competitive throwing of very heavy objects over very high bars. Richard and I had a pint and people watched.

This couple looked like movie extras.  “Probably American or Canadian tourists,” Richard remarked.