Love Story Gold Winner: The Uncertain Certainty of Leaving

May 29th, 2017

By Kathy Harding

They discover what they’re willing to risk for love.

Buoyed by the brazen optimism of our new love affair, my Kiwi, Rob, and I cast ourselves adrift in a revelatory landscape, the South Island of New Zealand.

I was 41 years old and desperate for a baby, he was a stranger from the bottom of the planet, and nothing about our romance made sense. Spring he rented a townhouse, summer he decamped to expedition ships, fall he floated on private yachts, and on Christmas he woke atop ice floes, drifting 60 degrees south of the equator. I could be found in my bed every day of the year.

Faced with the uncertain certainty of his departure, I did the only thing possible. I rode the dopamine high. Off we flew to tour his old stomping grounds, slipping away from reality and Seattle’s dismal November rain.

Across the vast Canterbury Plains we drove. We admired Oreo cows. We braked for sheep. We explored Christchurch, a 19th century village bloomed from stone. It was 2008, and the city vibrated with commerce, oblivious to underground rumblings that would soon flatten it.

“This is the closest thing I have to a home,” he said.

“Did you used to live here?”

“Kind of,” he said. “My stuff is here. In storage.”

What a strange definition for home, I thought, yet for a man who lived out of a duffel bag, it had a pragmatic ring of truth. After ten years of marriage, he’d thrown into that storage unit the material evidence and stayed in motion ever since.

“Do you want to move back?” I asked.

“That was the plan,” he said, darkly, referring I knew not to his ex-wife but to another ex, P., his cohort in adventure, a woman with whom he’d organized expeditions to the Titanic. The one who’d dumped him without warning a year ago, crushing him so deeply he didn’t speak for two weeks.

“Is it still?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Could you see yourself here?”

I was thrown by his frankness. We’d been talking about a future together, in a helter-skelter kind of way, but our situation was complicated, to say the least. The more I studied it, the less sense it made, like black matter defined primarily by what it was not. Not practical, not aligned, not likely to succeed. Yet, refusing to be denied, one of the most powerful forces in my life.

Who knows, truly, when a story begins or ends? Let’s open the book on the day last June my adoption agency told me I’d be matched with a baby within six months. Two days later I met Rob at a potluck. He was in Seattle to oversee construction of a one-of-a-kind expedition boat, a project scheduled to end soon. By that I mean his business visa had expired, his company was facing bankruptcy, and he was at risk of being deported. Not the future I’d been dreaming of.

But there was this: Although I could barely understand his Kiwi accent, his penetrating steel-grey eyes were unfurling the tight sad core of what I’d become. It was love at first sight in the least ironic sense of that overused phrase. After a summer cast in hallucinatory sheen, I’d put my adoption on hold, striking a deep blow to my heart. Rob didn’t want to adopt. He was open, perhaps, to having his own child.

Perhaps. The word echoed painfully in my mind as I looked around.

Across an old bridge, people wearing fine wool coats bustled from cafés to office buildings, their style and efficiency giving the historic town a modern vibe. The cobblestone streets were bedecked with flowering pots. I could smell Thai food, and I could see pigeons.

Could I see myself? I wasn’t sure. “It’s cute,” I said, hedging.

“It’s the second largest city in New Zealand.”


He laughed, before giving a funny little sigh. His cell phone rang, droning like a dying battery. I knew from the ringtone that it was Ted, his brilliant, mercurial boss, and wasn’t surprised when he hurried off to talk privately. The project was perpetually in crisis, what with chapter 11 proceedings, a corrupt construction manager, and the complexities of doing a major refit to create the world’s premier deep-ocean expedition ship.

I moved to a bench above the Avon River and watched several families playing by the water. A pack of toddlers were fearlessly throwing themselves towards ducks. I marveled at their spiraling energy. Seized by maternal longing, I forced myself to walk the green bank. I could hear Rob’s heated conversation from yards away.

“Jack said the wallpaper was fine. It’s curling. Did you hear they installed air conditioning pipes? No, not great. They slope up. Guess which direction gravity pulls water?”

There was a long pause. “Water. Will. Drip!” he yelled, and hung up.

“Everything OK?” I asked, returning to his side.

“Let’s go.” He snapped his phone back into its holder. “We’re late.”

What for? I wondered, getting in the car.

“Ted is naïve,” he said. “He trusts the wrong people. I have to protect him.”

Really? I wanted to ask. “Has he paid for your plane ticket yet?”

“He will,” he said. “Eventually.”

No, Sherlock, I thought. He won’t.

It was becoming clear to me that Ted made messes and Rob cleaned up after him. Ted was forever losing things (cell phones, chapter 11 filings, his own fortune), confusing one day for another, stealing from Peter to pay Paul, and investing in speculative deals with other people’s money. Rob organized paperwork, timelines, and people, smoothing feathers, covering Ted’s ass, and getting stuff done.

He was a good man, I thought, and hopefully not getting suckered.

“Are you sure he’ll pay you back?” I asked, not wanting to push it but wanting to push it.

“You’re going to love this next place,” he said, reaching over to take my hand.

Presto! We were back in adventure mode, I thought, feeling weary.

We drove for hours, crossing yellow plains, switch backing into snow, rising up and over Arthur’s Pass before turning inland to reach his favorite glacier. Finally, we got out of the car. My legs were stiff, my eyes tired. I couldn’t process any more amazing sights.

“This way,” he said.

We twisted past a warning sign, slipping on rocks. Higher up on the ice fields, a man was repairing a rope.

“I know that guy,” he said, and climbed the snow stairs.

Not possible, I thought, staying where I was, on formerly solid land.

Up close, the glacier was a sheet of white shaping itself into whatever imaginary object I projected onto it. Airstrip, football field, avalanche. An optical illusion, it refused to fix in my mind as a stable piece of information. Now that I had a red speck, Rob’s jacket, to give it scale, I saw that it was huge.

I watched him explore the ridge, moving as elegantly as a tightrope walker. On his way down, he bowed to the man, who saluted him.

“That guy did work for me,” Rob said to me, pleased as I’d seen him, and slapped me on the ass.

I kissed him, finding it hard to believe, just the same.

For lunch, we stopped in the township of Franz Josef, where he’d lived for four years, with 200 other inhabitants. More rest stop than village, it consisted of a few log-cabin service buildings, put up in a hurry during a short thaw, stacked beside the two-lane highway.

Of one thing I was sure. I could not live here. Buttfuck nowhere.

“My wife and I got married under those trees,” he said, pointing up.

“Really?” I said, immediately regretting how snobbish I sounded. “It’s lovely.”

It was a world of green shimmer. Rainforest curled over foothills, creating a roiling haze of silvery-green bush abutted by white-capped mountains. I knew from my Lonely Planet guidebook we were looking at the Southern Alps, spine of the South Island, a series of peaks created by the Alpine Fault, a strike-slip fault between two subduction zones where Pacific and Australian tectonic plates slid past each other at high speed. Underground activity was strong enough to push the mountains up by an inch each year.

“I was a happy little ranger here,” Rob said. “I spent my days cutting trail, my weekends fighting fires.” Energized, he zipped up the steps to the general store, getting hailed by an outdoorsy type.

Could it be yet another person who’d worked for him? I wondered, astonished.

If I took him on a whirlwind tour of the States, the chance of my running into work colleagues from twenty years ago was absolute zero. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was truly in another country, 1/35th the size of my own.

“Kathy,” he said. “Come meet Angus and Sally!”

A giant of a man smiled kindly down at me. His wife radiated confident goodwill, a cascade of turquoise necklaces sparkling around her neck.

“Gudday, mate,” he said, enveloping me in a crushing bear hug.

“We’ve heard so much about you!” Sally cried.

As we clutched together, I threw Rob a desperate look. Who the heck were these people?

“Angus is P.’s uncle twice removed,” he said. “I got to keep them after we split.”

“You got the right end of that bargain.” Sally patted his cheeks with big, rough hands.

“We’ve come down for a wee break,” Angus said. “Never expected to see you, bloke!”

“Sweet as,” Rob said, breaking into Kiwi vernacular I rarely heard in Seattle.

“Let’s eat, eh?” Sally said.

Congratulating ourselves on our superb timing, we sat at the lone picnic table and tucked into chicken-and-brie sandwiches, New Zealand’s ubiquitous deli option. Angus and Sally told us about their new place, a light-filled country stunner bordered by 30 acres of tamarillo orchards. The farm doubled as a bed and breakfast, generating extra money in jam, every piece of the property squeezed for cash. Times were tough, they explained. The real estate market wouldn’t budge. The dollar was artificially high. Their daughter Wendy was moving with her husband Mark and the baby to Sydney where he could make more money in one year than five back home.

“Never mind,” Sally said. “Give us your good news.”

“How’s the boat?” Angus asked.

Rob hesitated, not wanting to disappoint. “We’re close.”

“Are you?”

“We’ll sail in January,” he said. “February at the latest.”

Huh, I thought. Yesterday he’d said they’d be lucky to make sea trials in March.

“Good on ya,” Angus said, visibly relieved, unpeeling plastic wrap from a second sandwich. “How’s Ted?”

“Aw, Bruce.” Rob mimicked a broad Aussie accent. “Can you loan me a fiver?”

“You’re not giving him money, are you?”

“Of course not.”

I drank my Coke Zero, a poor imitation Diet Coke, and said nothing about the salary he’d waived last month.

“No use throwing good money after bad.”

“Of course not.”

“Are you covered by the bankruptcy court?”

“Yes,” he said. “Mainly.”

I dug into my own chicken-and-brie sandwich, trying not to think about the $40,000 he’d recently charged to his personal credit card to cover electrical parts. I couldn’t help thinking about how I’d left teaching, which I’d loved, in order to earn a good living at Microsoft. Of course I’d hook up with a dreamer with no sense of money. It made perfect, horrible sense, I thought, and guzzled my soda.

“Have you been in touch with folks at the department of conservation?” Angus asked.

“Not higher ups,” Rob said. “I’ve bumped into a few folks who used to work for me.”

“For a ranger,” I said, taking a stab at a joke, “he had a lot of direct reports.”

Angus and Sally glanced at each other.

“He certainly did,” she said.

“Weren’t you once in the paper every day for a month?” Angus asked.

“Forty-five days in a row,” Rob said.

“He was the youngest conservator New Zealand has ever had,” Sally said, sounding serious, like a proper grandmother. “There are only ten of them in the country.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid. Apparently I hardly knew Rob, though I couldn’t help wondering if they knew he currently worked in a trailer. “That’s amazing.”

“Yes,” Angus said firmly.

The conversation turned to cows.

After lunch, the men jumped on quads borrowed from one of Rob’s work buddies to check out a recent landslide. Sally and I walked along the highway. Fog blew off pavement, obscuring my feet. We were encased in the stuff.

“He seems much better,” she said. “Oh, oh, oh!”

“He’s happy,” I said, feeling pretty confident. Anyone could see how in love we were.

“We have you to thank for that,” she said, pressing my hand. “Oh those emails, he was upset, wasn’t he? I told P., listen, he’s our friend. I don’t care what he wrote. He’s absolutely wrecked!”

“Of course,” I said, willing myself to stay calm.

Although he’d told me about writing his ex’s family about her chronically poor health, torn up over the (far-fetched) idea that ever sickly P. was breaking up with him to spare him future suffering, I took Sally’s point that there had been another, less compassionate line of questioning. Had he accused her of cheating on him? That was his other theory.

“She’s onto the next one,” she said. “Didn’t waste any time, either.”

“Oh, with the pilot?” I asked, lightly.

“Yes,” she said. “From Perth.”

He’d been right, I thought, stricken. She’d cheated on him with the pilot.

“They’re talking babies.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said, trying to save face. His, but mine, too.

“Do you think?”

Stepping over a downed punga, I took my chance to pat her. “It wasn’t right between them.”

“They always seemed happy,” she said, looking wistful.

I paused, not knowing what to say to that.

“Listen, so what if he wants to show everyone he’s recovered?” She wrapped her arm through mine. “That doesn’t mean he’s not happy with you, right?”

“Right,” I said, instantly dejected.

You didn’t have to be a genius to get her drift. I was a rebound, and an interloper. Although her niece twice removed had broken Rob’s heart, she was a nice girl from Stewart Island, the logical choice for a hometown champ. I could practically hear Sally thinking, why does this American city slicker get to have Rob?

I wondered that myself.

Two quads came roaring down the road—for that’s what it was, not a highway in any true sense. Angus waved for us to hop on. We sped down the strip to our rented Toyota Yaris, one of several cast-off Japanese imports populating the island’s narrow roads. Without further ado, Rob leapt off his quad and handed Sally his keys.

“Let’s go,” he said to me.

Baffled, I climbed off and gave his friends a weird little wave.

“Bye, love!” Sally jumped on Rob’s quad and raced Angus down the strip.

“C’mon,” Rob said. “We’re late.”

“Late for what?” I asked, tired of being inexplicably rushed from one place to another. “Do you need to talk to Ted?”

“No,” he said.

“We’re on vacation, remember?”

“Exactly,” he said. “Why do you want to waste it?”

We got into the car and drove for hours. I sat stewing over the casual way Sally had dropped her bombshell on me. If I told Rob about P., he’d be upset. We’d have to deal with his reaction, and whatever it implied. With my toes, I changed the radio station, delighted by my dexterity and the opportunity to piss him off. Sally was my proper target, but he’d do nicely.

“That’s disgusting,” he said. “Do you know how many germs are on the human foot?”

“Yes,” I said. “You’ve told me before.” He had a tendency to obsess over the topic.

“Then why did you do that?”

I spun the tuner with my big toe. Slowly, then slower. “Why do you care?” I knew why. He was afraid of bacteria lying in wait to destroy him.

“Because I have to touch the dial!”

“Bwahaha!” I raised my hands in mock spider fashion.

He shivered, pursing his rosebud lips.

We stopped talking after that. The afternoon grew long. The sun began to slide below the horizon.

“Follow me,” he said, parking on the side of a road and dipping under rough bush.

We stomped through dark undergrowth, under a canopy of rimu trees blocking the low-lying sliver of sun. I wasn’t sure if we were following a poorly maintained trail or making an illegal one, and I didn’t like not knowing. Why couldn’t he include me in the goddamned decision-making process?

“Can you tell me when I’m about to get blinded, please?” I asked, holding up a sharp branch he’d let go of and allowed to whip back into my face.

Grunting, he climbed over a boulder, disappearing downhill.

You, my friend, can be a real pain in the ass, I thought.

We worked our way through the ferns, which were grasping and huge, food for dinosaurs. From every angle, I could see plants growing greedily on other plants, the epiphytes creating an oppressive mossy density. We were in a wet, temperate rainforest that looked like the Garden of Eden, life without competition and before zoning laws, when you could really let yourself go.

Gluttonous, I thought.

He was hoofing it through wetlands, shaking his boots after each step.

Rubbing dry the wet swipe of a long sopping frond, I shouted, “Wait up!”

He kept moving.

Seriously? I thought.

“Kathy,” he said, appearing atop a slick-looking mound. “Come see this.”

Resentfully, I made my way to him. Beyond the little hill, there was a river, cutting through sand. We crossed it together. The beach was empty, with no sign of human activity. He fell to his knees. I got down on all fours and followed him. We crawled across a lonely stretch along the Tasman Sea to a slab of grey flat stone.

“What are we doing?” I asked, firmly, patient no more.

“Ssshh,” he said, pointing further down the beach.

“Oohh,” I breathed.

Penguins were hopping across rocks. More bird than fish, they were petite and glistening, a bright stripe of yellow hair flaring from their eyebrows. Grunting companionably, they strutted towards us before bouncing up a dirt path.

“Where are they going?” I asked.

“To their burrows,” he said. “Under the trees.”

Not possible, I thought, having imagined penguins dotting ice shelves, but it was.

“I didn’t want you to miss them,” he said. “After they come back from fishing, they don’t come out of their burrows until morning.”

All day, I realized, he’d been trying to tell me the story of his life, aligning each major stop with formative periods. He’d been accounting for each minute so I could have a body of knowledge from which to make my decisions, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this magic before my eyes—threatened penguins in the wild. From his perspective, it had been late. The sun was low on the horizon, leaving seas to blacken. Night was almost here. Penguins were heading to bed.

He was right, I thought. There wasn’t enough time, given what was at stake: the penguins, our hearts, our lives.

“This was a good reason to hurry,” I said.

“Time bandit,” he said, giving that sigh again, and took my hand.

We watched, getting stiff, until the very last penguin was back from the sea.

Queenstown, Mount Cook, Lake Tokapo. We spent another few days traveling through shimmering beauty, visiting places of personal triumph—a national park he’d managed as a top conservator, a barrier island he’d saved from pests, a Kiwi sanctuary where administrators welcomed him like a conquering hero. College friends opened their homes; a famous explorer patted dough into handmade tortillas for our private lunch. I began to realize how deliberately and forcefully he’d thrown off the predictability of his former good life. Sure, living in a big city across the world, working on a tough refit, falling in love with an American interloper on the verge of starting a family was pushing him to his limit. Perhaps that was exactly the point.

After a final blustery hike along Kaikouru’s perilous, spectacular cliffs, we returned to Auckland. I was flying back to Seattle alone. Rob was crossing the ditch, headed to Sydney and Ted, for another couple of weeks. Taking care of business, and his friend.

On the way to the airport, we were quiet, processing the last ten days.

“Good trip, eh?” he asked, taking my hand.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “Sally mentioned your ex.”


I hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, but I couldn’t keep the secret anymore. He deserved to know. “She’s living with the pilot.”

“Right,” he said, turning off the highway and parking beside yet another random field. Then he pulled me on top of him.

“Here?” I asked, flabbergasted, glancing at golden haystacks. “Now?”

“Shall we make a baby?”

I found myself tearing up; it was my clarion call, the words I’d waited to hear my entire life. Although I wanted to shout yes, and grab my chance, I couldn’t. Sorrow was rising up, ache from an old injury, warning me to be careful.

“It’s what you want, right?” he asked, sensing my hesitation.

I searched his clear eyes, hoping for a sign I wouldn’t be sucked down again by grief; another blow might do me in for good. What I saw surprised me. He was as scared as I was. Scared, but offering up everything he had, for me.

“Yes,” I said.

He kept an eye out for tractors. I kept an eye out for cars.

On the plane back home, I pulled a blanket over my lap and settled in for the long flight. I pressed my stomach, allowing myself to feel the barest, bravest scrap of hope. My relationship with Rob might leave me a crippled mess on the battlefield, but what were my other options? Nothing I could bear to choose.

I leaned back and watched the city shrink. As we gained altitude, the rangy contours of the island became more visible. Two long strips of land encircled and divided by water. In New Zealand, Rob liked to say, you’re never more than an hour from the sea, and now I knew what he meant. It was a land of geological accidents. The real story was taking place thousands of miles below the surface, where the earth’s plates shifted and creaked, oblivious to creatures upstairs trying to make sense of the beautiful rubble.

Kathy Harding has returned to writing, her favorite endurance sport, after 15 years of working in technology. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Tales To Go, and Radical Society as well as turned into a short film shown on WGBH-TV in Boston. Years ago, she earned an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, where she was the fiction editor of Sonora Review. Currently, she is a 2015-2016 Made at Hugo House fellow in Seattle.

Animal Encounter Gold Winner: From Tsetses to Chimps

May 1st, 2017

By David Myles Robinson

One of my favorite movie lines of all time was spoken by Walter Brennan’s character Eddie in To Have and Have Not: “Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?”

I can’t say exactly why that line resonated with me, especially since I’m not one of those guys who make a practice of remembering movie lines. Perhaps it was the wonderful characterizations of Brennan, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. Or perhaps it was the various meanings one could read into the line. One of those meanings might be this: just when you think everything is fine and you see no danger ahead, you might step on an innocuous-looking dead bee and still get stung.

That’s what happened during our August 2000 private safari to Tanzania. There were just the four of us—myself and Marcia, along with Ricky and Rich, both of whom we had met in Botswana many years earlier. We had designed a fairly high-end safari, staying in lodges and permanent camps and, whenever possible, flying from camp to camp. It was a far cry from the Botswana safari, when we stayed in two-person Eureka tents and carried our own sleeping bags.

One of our first lodges was the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a luxury hotel built on the rim of the huge crater, home to a vast array of wildlife. In fact, it is the world’s largest inactive and unfilled caldera. It’s two thousand feet deep and covers an area of about one hundred square miles.

Marcia and I had been lucky enough on a prior safari to be among the last tourists allowed to camp out on the crater floor. Now even the native Maasai people, who are allowed to graze their cattle in the crater, must exit the reserve at the end of each day. Because of the popularity of the site, due mainly to the incredible concentration of animals, there are a number of hotels and tented camps on the rim of the crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is routinely listed among the top hotels in the world. The large, lavishly appointed rooms overlook the crater. Even our toilet had a view. We had a personal butler who made sure our fireplace was roaring when we returned from the chilly drive up from the floor of the crater each evening, and, of course, that our bar was stocked with our preferred beverage. Dinner was served to the four of us in an elaborately decorated dining room. The lodge is absurdly expensive, but if you have the money to splurge, it is well worth it.

So everything was going well on our private safari. From the crater we went to a luxurious permanent tented camp on the bank of the Grumeti River. Our large tent had a king-sized bed, writing desk, carpet, and an en suite bathroom. The camp featured a small pool in which the four of us relaxed, cocktails in hand, at the end of a hot and dusty morning game drive. The bar and dining area was quite literally on the bank of the river.

Unfortunately, the Serengeti was experiencing a terrible drought that year, and the Grumeti River was more of a mudhole than a river. Lethargic hippos wallowed in the mud. Cautious Thomson gazelles and impalas searched the river for water to drink, more at risk than usual from lions and cheetahs due to the reduced water access.

There were so many animals in close proximity to the camp that it was not uncommon to lie in bed and hear lions and elephants and the danger calls of monkeys.

But on our second night at Grumeti, the sounds were closer and different. We couldn’t figure out what it was—until the next morning when we walked out of our tent. The pool, which was the distance of two tents from us, had turned from the inviting blue we’d enjoyed the day before to brown. The camp crew was abuzz. A hippo, apparently fed up with the slushy mud of the river, had somehow managed to climb up to the pool and immerse itself therein. It must have sat there in total contentment for hours during the night. Unfortunately for us, the pool had to be closed for the remainder of our stay—not just for the crew to clean out the mud and hippo shit, but because it was too dangerous to have such an inviting attraction for the hippos so close to our living quarters.

I don’t know if the drought that year had anything to do with the strong resurgence of the tsetse flies, but for the first time in all of our visits to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, we became targets of these huge, biting flies with long proboscises. This is when things began to go bung—when we got bit by the proverbial dead bee.

All of us suffered bites from the tsetses, which are capable of biting right through clothing. Though all our bites hurt, only Marcia and Ricky suffered serious reactions. Marcia’s reactions were by far the worst. A bite on the top of her hand caused the hand to swell up to the size of a baseball. She had huge lumps on her neck, arms, and back. Ricky’s were about half the size of Marcia’s. And they hurt . . . bad.

Despite the bites, we still went on the morning and evening game drives, and the viewing was nothing short of amazing. The prides of lions with small cubs were huge, and we spent hours just watching and photographing their antics. But we were all in varying and increasing degrees of pain. It broke my heart to see Marcia in such agony, but other than give her the pain pills I always carry on safari, there was nothing we could do.

On top of everything else, I developed a head cold.

From Grumeti we went to Klein’s Camp, also in the Serengeti. Thankfully, Klein’s was built on an elevated piece of land, and a hundred or so feet of elevation made all the difference in the presence of the tsetses. Klein’s Camp became our temporary respite from the onslaught of the flying beasts. Unhappily, as soon as we descended from our oasis, the biting began anew.

It was a small stroke of luck that the wife of the camp manager was also susceptible to the tsetse bite, and she, too, had the severe reactions suffered by Marcia. So she had a much stronger antihistamine than we had. It helped, but I gave serious thought to canceling the rest of the trip. That would have meant giving up our dream of seeing the chimps at Gombe Stream National Park, where Jane Goodall lived while doing her research. Marcia said it would take much more than some bites to give that up. Little did she know how close we would come to doing just that.

One of the wonders of the African bush, and why we keep going back despite having experienced our fair share of hardship, is the element of daily surprise. Each day brings something new and amazing, so that even our experienced guides are often shocked into wonderment.

During one of our many game drives in the Serengeti from Klein’s Camp, we came across a leopard in a leafless tree, ridiculously close to the dirt track we were following. The leopard was staring intently toward the ground. At first we couldn’t see anything on the ground. The end-of-summer brown grass was knee-high. Then the leopard leapt from the tree, and within seconds it came up with a bushbuck, a small, brown-colored antelope which, when fully grown, stands about three feet tall at its shoulder. The leopard held the bushbuck, which looked very young, in its mouth for a few seconds and then, instead of making the kill and carrying it up the tree, it set the bushbuck down. The bushbuck was still very much alive, but was clearly in shock, as it didn’t try to run away.

We sat in amazement, snapping photos like crazy, as the leopard proceeded to play with the bushbuck, just as a housecat would play with a captured mouse. This went on for several minutes, and even our guide had retrieved his trusty old Canon and was snapping away between exclamations.

Eventually we all convinced ourselves that the leopard must not have been hungry and had decided to let the bushbuck live. The leopard even climbed back up to its perch in the tree, leaving the healthy bushbuck alone on the ground.

But this is Africa, and leopards are leopards. As soon as the bushbuck decided it might be safe to sneak away, and began to run, the leopard was out of the tree and onto the bushbuck in the blink of an eye. This time he made the kill and climbed up to his perch, bushbuck in mouth.

On that same day, we came across a small family of cheetahs chowing down on a fresh kill. The odd thing was that it was almost midday, and we’d been on our way back to camp. There’s a reason why game drives take place in the very early morning and late afternoon: the animals are generally only active during those times. They sleep and rest in whatever shade they can find during the intense heat of the day.

Yet these cheetahs were out in the open, sharing the inadequate shade of one lone, scrawny acacia tree while they enjoyed the delights of a freshly killed gazelle. Our guide explained that he’d only recently begun to notice this phenomenon. The prevailing theory was that the Serengeti tourist trade had grown to the point where the increased numbers of safari vehicles in certain areas were interfering with the hunting habits of some species. It was only during the harsh midday heat, when the tourists were back at their camps enjoying their own shade and lunch, that the cats could hunt and feast in relative solitude. At least, that was our guide’s theory.

With the bites, and the resulting pain, getting worse and worse, we jumped at the chance to take our first African balloon ride. For years we’d rejected the notion of missing out on a game drive in favor of a balloon ride. But this seemed like the perfect occasion, so we arranged for an early morning flight.

The predawn hours of the African bush are often extremely cold. It’s hard to fathom that within a short time, the heat will drive humans and animals alike to seek shelter. It was a particularly clear and cold morning when we arrived at the balloon staging area. The large wicker basket, which could hold sixteen people, lay on its side while the huge, partially inflated red, blue, and yellow balloon hung limply nearby. At that moment it looked quite inadequate for the task ahead.

To take off, we were instructed to climb into the basket while it lay on its side. It was awkward as we climbed into our little two-person wicker squares, where we lay as if in a cupboard. Soon enough our pilot began to inflate the balloon, and the basket was slowly righted. Then we were flying.

The gush of the flame into the balloon is loud, but usually happened in short bursts. It was the intensity of the silence after the bursts of flame that first struck me. To fly in absolute silence is in itself amazing, but to fly in silence over the vast Serengeti plains was in a class of experience all its own. We watched the ubiquitous acacia trees sweep by. We watched herds of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests take off running, often in confused and opposite directions, as they sensed our low-flying pass above them. We watched the graceful lope of a running herd of giraffes. It was beautiful, thrilling, and chin-quivering.

Then we experienced yet another one of the brilliant African bush surprises. In the silence of the coasting balloon, we watched as a lone hyena took down a fleeing Thomson gazelle, the scene acted out in silence below us. It was part of the beautiful, deadly, brutal ballet of Africa.

The balloon pilot landed us far from where we had taken off, but precisely where a bountiful brunch, complete with champagne, had been set up for us under an expansive acacia tree.

From the Serengeti we were scheduled to fly in a small chartered plane to Arusha, where we would stay overnight at the Mountain Lodge. We would fly out the next morning on Air Tanzania to Mwanza, and then on to Kigoma, where we would take a boat down the coast of Lake Tanganyika to Gombe Stream National Park.

I thought my head cold was gone, but apparently there was some remaining congestion. Moments after taking off from the dirt airstrip at Klein’s Camp, my ears closed off. It felt as if my head was going to explode. The pain was excruciating. It was frightening, but all I could do for the duration of the flight was hold my head in my hands and moan and pray that my head really wasn’t going to explode. Although landing was a relief, my ears did not unclog. I could hear almost nothing.

We had our driver stop at the Air Tanzania office on the way to the hotel so we could pick up our tickets for the next day’s flights. Unfortunately, we learned that Air Tanzania had stopped flying from Mwanza to Kigoma. Kigoma was where we needed to be in order to get to Gombe. I left Marcia, Rich, and Ricky in the office and wandered back out to the van. I couldn’t hear, and my head hurt too much to participate.

After well over an hour of finagling, the plan was to spend an extra night in Arusha and then fly Air Tanzania to Mwanza, where we would pick up a charter flight to Kigoma. I was not displeased to learn I wouldn’t have to get on another airplane for two days. I was sure my head would be clear by then.

The Mountain Lodge in Arusha was a pleasant enough place, although on our most recent trip to Arusha, in 2014, our guide told us her company had stopped using the lodge because it had become too dangerous—as a result of people, not animals. It was basically a small village of round, one-room boma-like huts with thatched roofs and ivy-covered walls. The gardens were pleasant and luxuriant. By the time we went to bed that night, my ears still hadn’t cleared.

We didn’t do much of anything the next day except wander around town on our own. Again, that’s something we would be discouraged from doing today. Bill Clinton was scheduled to visit Arusha the next week, so welcoming banners were being hoisted onto light poles, and city workers scurried around sweeping the dirt on the dirt streets.

By the time we went to bed that next night, my ears had still not cleared. We each had our own bed. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear Marcia moaning. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was freezing cold and had a headache. Her stomach hurt a little bit. I gave her my blanket and a dose of Cipro, an antibiotic I always carry to developing countries. When she said she was still freezing cold (though it was not cold out), I summoned Ricky from his room. Ricky is an MD. Unfortunately, he’s an ophthalmologist and almost as old as we are, which means the non-eye-related medical stuff he learned in med school has mostly receded into the nooks and crannies of his mind.

Our rooms were far away from the hotel reception area, so Ricky went to track down a security guard to ask him to bring more blankets. We feared Marcia had contracted malaria despite taking antimalarial pills. We gave her some aspirin and stacked the blankets on top of her until she finally stopped shaking. Eventually she dozed off. Ricky went back to his room. I lay on my bed, my ears still plugged, worried sick about Marcia and about what would happen to me when I took off on another flight. I wondered if there was any chance at all that Marcia would wake up in the morning and feel well enough to travel to Gombe.

She did. She wasn’t 100 percent, mostly because she was tired and drained, but she felt good enough to travel. She wasn’t going to miss seeing the chimps for anything. The best guess as to what happened to her was a kind of post-anaphylactic reaction to all of the tsetse bites. We’ll never really know.

My ears were still plugged, and I was fairly terrified about flying, but we went to the airport and boarded our Air Tanzania flight to Mwanza. As soon as we lifted off, my ears miraculously unplugged. That which I had feared the most turned out to be the cure.

Once in Mwanza, we met up with our small-plane charter captain, and off we went to Kigoma. It was kind of a boring flight, although we flew low enough to see. The terrain was parched and mostly empty except for the occasional hardscrabble village, where children would inevitably run out of their huts upon hearing a plane and wave and jump around. Although we couldn’t hear them, of course, we knew they would be hollering, probably “Hallo!”

As if that day wasn’t surreal and sleepy enough following our difficult night, in Kigoma we were met and taken to a hotel on the banks of the Tanganyika. It was an old and dying hotel, although it may have once been fairly decent. From the cracked cement walls and faded, peeling paint to the dark reception area—possibly a result of no power—it was almost like being in a ghost town. Undoubtedly the lack of any more commercial flights into Kigoma was not helping the tourist business.

After learning that we’d have to wait there until the boat to Gombe was ready for us, we were directed to the hotel’s restaurant. We were frankly surprised there would even be a functioning restaurant, but off we went. It was lighter than the rest of the hotel, as it had large, though dirty, windows looking out on a courtyard and one-story hotel rooms, which were the lakefront “luxury” suites. A young, squalid-looking boy handed us menus, which were ridiculously long. They had everything from hamburgers to chicken Kiev to an array of Indian food.

By then we were punch-drunk and had begun to find everything stupidly hilarious. We ordered beers and chicken tikka masala and rice and laughed at almost everything. The food was predictably awful, but the beer was good, and after a couple hours of sitting around, we were finally on our way to Gombe Stream, home of Jane Goodall’s research station. We were taken there in a wooden longboat with hard wooden benches, a canvas roof for shelter, and crates of food and supplies for our three-night stay.

The cabin in which we stayed at Gombe was only yards away from Jane Goodall’s former house. Our place consisted of several sleeping rooms—cells, really—and a small dining area attached to the kitchen. All the windows and doors were covered with wire mesh designed to keep the baboons out. We soon learned why, as the large troop of baboons that lived on or near the beach seemed to know when the cabin was inhabited, which meant food and mischief. We often found one or more at a window or door, trying to get inside.

The camp was right on the lake. The beach between the lake and the camp was made up of large, smooth rocks, so that we immediately christened the beach “Nice,” after the rocky beaches of Nice in Southern France. The lake water was cool and clean, and when we weren’t marching through the jungle looking for chimps, we spent our days on the beach at Nice getting a tan, watching the baboons, and taking frequent dips in the cool of the lake.

It was not always easy to find the chimps at Gombe. The park is long and narrow, and runs from the shores of Lake Tanganyika up a steep incline. Searching for the chimps at Gombe was very different from trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, which we did years later. There, the guides would communicate with park rangers, who went out every morning to find where each gorilla family was on that particular day. So even though some hikes to the gorillas could take several hours, it was a virtual guarantee to find them.

In Gombe, there were no personnel except the rangers who acted as our guides. Although the individual chimp families were territorial, their territories were large and the terrain was often brutally steep in dense jungle. So there was no guarantee of finding, let alone observing, chimps on any given day.

On our first day of searching, we took off straight uphill, following narrow, meandering trails made by the chimps. It was hard climbing in uncomfortable heat. I had to “short-leash” Marcia on a number of occasions to help get her up some of the steepest inclines. I was somewhat worried about her putting such stress on her body only a day after that terrible night in Arusha, but as it turned out, it was young Rich who had the hardest time. At one point, after a particularly arduous climb, I looked at him and saw he was deathly white and sweating profusely. He survived, but he declined to go on the next day’s hike.

We did find chimps that afternoon, but they were high up on the slopes and in thick foliage. Our periods of observation were counted in seconds rather than minutes. All in all, it was a pretty disappointing five-hour death march. Lake Tanganyika, however, felt wonderful.

Rich’s decision to pass on the hike the next morning was ironic, as we found a large family of chimps close to the lake and only about thirty minutes from the camp. They were, of course, amazing and wonderful, and we could see how Jane Goodall was willing to spend so much of her life studying and falling in love with these creatures.

It was a hard trip, but one of our best.

David Myles Robinson is a retired attorney, having spent thirty-eight years working in Honolulu, Hawai‘i as a trial attorney. He now lives with his wife, a retired Honolulu Circuit Court judge, in Taos, NM, where, in addition to writing, he can indulge his passions of skiing, golfing, hiking, and, of course, traveling. They have traveled to all seven continents.

Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner: Nirvana’s Horizon—Discovering the Soul of the Golden Land as a Buddhist Monk in Myanmar

April 24th, 2017

By Kevin Dimetres

He was seeking a new level of travel.

The reflection in the mirror was virtually unrecognizable; the spelling of my name remained obscure; what might happen next had become a perpetual mystery.  Before I could make sense of it all, Burgundy-robed monks whisked me away, up a dusty spiral staircase, to their secluded 5th floor rooftop. With endearing fervor, the monks excitedly pulled out their smartphones, gathered around me as a group, and began snapping selfies, with me, against the backdrop of the Yangon skyline. Had I stumbled down the rabbit hole, only to arrive in Myanmar? I peered over the ledge to the chaos of once-familiar city life below; I became as dizzy as the moment was surreal.

I saw none of this coming, yet it was all going exactly as planned.

~ ~ ~

No guidebooks, no tour agencies, no beaten path; I promised myself this trip would be original.  Long removed from my days as a wide-eyed tourist, and beyond my adventures as a gritty backpacker, I sought a new level of travel. I needed to find something real, something pure. Determined to bond with the local culture at its most intimate level, my goal was to connect with the cultural fabric and spiritual pulse of a land as distinctive and unique as any on earth. Armed with nothing more than kindness and a smile—the Buddha’s preferred weapons of choice—I hit the streets and began to explore. Myanmar beckoned.

~ ~ ~

I arrived in Yangon with a single backpack and an open mind.  Sweltering heat consumes the city during the heart of the summer monsoon season.  The downtown air was thick; the traffic frenzied. Decrepit buildings from the golden age of generations past wore their faded exteriors proudly, like battle scars earned fighting a silent war alongside the hopes and dreams of the Myanmar people.  But behind those crumbling walls and cracked windows, the people smiled—endless, infinite smiles.  Beneath the surface lay something beautiful and inspiring.  I was intoxicated with wonder; the spirit of the Myanmar people was unlike anything I had ever come across.

Golden Buddhist pagodas pierced the sky amidst a backdrop of urban decay, symbolically reflecting the country’s shining optimism throughout its tumultuous political past.  I browsed the street vendors, perusing the black market antiques, knock-off soccer jerseys, and countless varieties of Buddha statues. An old man with leathered skin and heavy eyes sat in a small plastic chair behind a table selling longyis, the traditional sarong worn by the men of Myanmar.  These long, skirt-type garments did not contain pockets or belt holes, yet were as ubiquitous as they were comfortable.  I had to have one.

His eyes lit up as he presented me with an indescribably warm and heartfelt smile to accompany my new longyi. Those distinctive Myanmar smiles—heart-meltingly genuine, slightly bashful, and with a hint of laughter—were beyond infectious.

I wore my longyi with sandals and a T-shirt—typical Myanmar attire—but blend in, I certainly did not. Standing a relatively towering 6’2” with seemingly more hair on my face and forearms than many locals had on their head, the stares of onlooker’s were palpable. Adults would greet me with a handshake and a smile, enthusiastically speaking whatever English they could muster. A man with pepper-grey hair and an animated demeanor rushed across a street to approach me and eagerly presented a faded, creased business card; above a local Yangon address the words “English Teacher” were written in large, bold letters. He introduced himself as Thein, and upon learning of my American heritage he asked me to volunteer at his English class the following day. I thought about it for a moment, and became more excited by the second. I had been seeking a way to connect with the people, and the chance had found me. Perfect.

~ ~ ~

The classroom was located on a the 3rd floor of a battered building in the heart of downtown Yangon, a few yards away from a row of street vendors serving the best mohinga soup in the city. Most of the class time was spent answering simple questions and speaking English in a conversational style. The topics of discussion generally centered on the following concepts: life in Myanmar; life in America; politics; religion; and why I’m not yet married. A few students implied that should I choose to stay in Yangon, I would no longer have that problem. All I could do was laugh. The generosity of the local people is unmatched; it is easy to fall in love with Myanmar.

In the front row of the class sat a Buddhist monk with an affable demeanor and an inquisitive glare.  He sat quietly, maintaining eye contact while he processed his thoughts. He was one of about 40 students, a few of whom were also monks. He let the younger students speak first, before finally raising his hand.

“What is the cost of happiness?” the monk stated with a sly smile and a glimmer in his eye. “We all want to be happy, yes? But…what are we willing to pay for happiness? What would you pay for happiness?”

The context of the question figuratively smacked me across my face. A Buddhist monk and I engaging in a philosophical debate; this was the kind of thrill I was hoping to encounter.

The look in his eyes told me he wasn’t concerned with my response; he had just wanted to plant the seed for reflection. I giggled with delight, gave him a nod, and joked with the class about how the cost of my plane ticket to Myanmar had been worth every penny. The conversation evolved into a discussion about Buddhism and religion, and I found it remarkable how easily perspectives were exchanged without any sense of ego or grandeur. The Myanmar people have an extraordinary capacity to discuss religion and politics in a constructive manner, and I was thrilled with the chance to continue our conversations during the following class.

~ ~ ~

A burly, energetic monk wearing a bright orange robe stood by the classroom doorway as he awaited my arrival the following day.  He was the bhikkhu (head monk in charge) of a local Theravada Buddhist monastery, and he called himself Dahmapalla. I’m not sure exactly how he came to know of me, but he was excited to meet an American English teacher from Washington, D.C. He spoke a modicum of English draped in a heavy Myanmar accent. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, and the topic of my religious beliefs inevitably came up. I simply stated that positive elements can be found in each religion, and a greater understanding of all religious philosophies would lead to better spiritual health and a more harmonious world. As I spoke of my desire to learn more about Buddhism during my journey to Asia, Dahmapalla silently nodded his head before presenting me with a unique opportunity.

“Come to monastery,” he said proudly with his thick accent, “Teach monks English, stay for free.  You learn Buddhism, monks learn English.  Sleep there, free, no money, very good…okay, okay?”

The opportunity was tantalizing. Theravada Buddhism plays such a fascinatingly prominent role in everyday life in Myanmar; golden Buddhist pagodas are ubiquitous, while Buddhist monks walk the streets at sunrise for their daily alms. There was something alluring about the Myanmar people- their unparalleled happiness and tranquility seemed to be a direct result of their Buddhist faith. I was eager to learn more, and became ecstatic at the prospect of such a cultural exchange.

Without a moment of hesitation, I excitedly said “Yes!” before he could finish his sentence.

The basic concepts of Buddhism were somewhat familiar to me—I confess to being an avid listener of Alan Watts—however I knew very little about its practical application in everyday life. Beyond my love affair with Chinese martial arts movies and musical references from the Wu-Tang Clan, I had never seen Buddhism in action. Above all, I was fascinated by the lives of Buddhist monks. How does one become a monk, and what do their daily lives entail?  Would these seemingly spiritual savants, on their individual path to enlightenment, be willing to share an anecdote of wisdom with a foreigner such as myself?

I had no further plans beyond that moment.  The thrill of the unknown lay ahead.

~ ~ ~

The monastery was located in an enduring building situated in an unfamiliar neighborhood north of downtown Yangon. The five-story building was built in a “U” shape, with an open courtyard in the center and an attached building on the side which acted as the bhikkhu’s private quarters. I arrived with a few English language activity books, a stack of notecards, spiral bound notebooks, and a few boxes of pencils which I had purchased at a market near the English school. I created a playlist of my favorite music to share—I was guardedly hopeful that Buddhist monks might enjoy Bob Marley and Wu-Tang- as well as pictures of my family and friends back in the States. As always, I kept a box of playing cards and a tennis ball ready; games and activities are a phenomenal way to bond with people, especially when language barriers exist. In reality, I had no idea what to expect, and deep down, I kind of liked it that way. I was ready to embrace anything that crossed my path.

Metaphorically speaking, you could hear the record come to a screeching halt when I entered the monastery. The older monks enthusiastically chatted amongst themselves at the sight of my presence, while the novice monks were in a state of curious hysteria. I gave everyone a wave as I shouted “Minglaba, nay kung la?” which, according to my Myanmar language app meant “Hello, how are you?”

The monks waved back while they roared with lighthearted laughter at my clumsy attempt to speak the language, and I continued to wave while I tried to I soak it all in.

Dahmapalla introduced me to a monk named Zaw; he was in his early twenties, spoke a little English, and would act as my unofficial guide for the day. Zaw came from a small village in the countryside about four hours away, and had committed to life as a Buddhist monk at the tender age of nine. He had a brother and two sisters whom he had last spoken with a year earlier during their visit to Yangon. He had seen other Americans before, but I was the first that he had the chance to meet personally, and he was equally as excited to be speaking with me as I was with him.

As I settled in, I was greeted by a cheerful monk named Sai. Sai was a part-time monk; sometimes he would stay at the monastery for a week or two living a devout monastic lifestyle, then return to his home life in the city. I was unaware that Buddhist monks could float freely between the two lifestyle dynamics, but as I came to later understand, the degree to which one embraces a Buddhist way of life is ultimately up to the individual. It’s a spiritual approach to life open to anyone in any capacity- even as a part-time Buddhist monk.

Sai knew how to say two simple words in English, and he couldn’t wait to try them on me. He clutched an empty mug and extended his hand in my direction.

“Hello! Hello… Coffee?  Coffee!”

I was surprised by the gesture, but I gladly accepted.

I nodded my head, returned the smile, and enthusiastically said “Yes!”

Sai mimicked my body language, nodded his head, and responded “Yes. Yes? Yes!”

He now understood a third English word, and he couldn’t have been happier.

The oldest monk, whose name was Kyin, introduced himself to me as I drank coffee with Sai. Kyin sported impossibly dark navy-blue eyes and was immensely proud of the fact that he was nearing his 70th birthday. He attributed his long life to his affinity for meditating up to 6 hours a day. He spoke a small amount of English, which he had crafted during his previous career as a businessman prior to becoming a monk. He had lived in the monastery for only a few years, and he had a family living in another part of the city. He planned to remain a monk for the rest of his days, and professed that he was as happy now as he had ever been in his entire life.

Zaw took me to a local café for dinner a few blocks from the monastery. He recommended a spicy curry dish and sat with me while I ate, however he could not eat himself, as the monks typically did not eat after midday.

Once we returned, I spent the rest of the afternoon playing chinlone- a traditional game visually similar to hacky-sack played with a woven rattan ball amid a circle of people- in the courtyard with the novice monks.

As the sun was setting, I was summoned to meet with Dahmapalla in his private quarters.

~ ~ ~

I sat on the floor across from Dahmapalla, my legs crossed awkwardly in a feeble attempt at the lotus position. A few other elder monks, all wearing burgundy robes with burnt-orange ties around their waist, stood around us. Images of the Buddha and framed pictures of the monastery’s former bhikkhu’s adorned the walls. My eyes beamed with anticipation, as I was as curious as I was excited-a philosophical conversation with a Buddhist master in a Buddhist temple had remained near the top of my travel bucket list for years.

“You happy here?  Everything okay?”  He asked me in a relaxed, caring manner. I assured him that I was content and gracious for his hospitality.

“So…You want learn Buddhism. Yes? You like Myanmar and Buddha knowledge, yes?”

I nodded eagerly, unsure about where the conversation was headed.

“Okay, okay…what you want to know? You teach English, I teach Buddhism,” he exclaimed in a jovial tone.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to say; I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

“Well,” I stammered, trying my best to articulate my thoughts clearly but not sure where to begin, “Everything…I want to know everything about Buddhism…I want to see life through your eyes.”

“Oh! Well…Okay, okay,” he responded in an amused manner with a Cheshire-cat grin, “You have to be monk first to know everything for Buddhism.”

“Yes, I know, I know,” I said sheepishly while nodding my head. “I just want to learn…Anything… Everything. I seek knowledge.”

I knew not whether his previous comment was a question or an answer.

Dahmapalla spoke with the other monks in their native tongue.  A round of smiles and head nodding ensued.
“Okay, good! You like Buddhism. You want Buddha knowledge, I give you knowledge. As a monk. But first we give you robe and cut hair. Tomorrow. After English class. Very good. Okay, okay.”


Did I just agree to become a Buddhist monk?
Overwhelmed, I tried to wrap my head around the moment—this was beyond my wildest dreams or expectations. Thoughts collided at every angle, from the benign (what about my hair?) to the substantial (will I have to be a monk forever?).  Part of me felt a sliver of guilt; am I worthy of such a privilege? As much as I wanted to learn about Buddhism firsthand, I did not want to disrespect the monastery with any type of disingenuous cultural tourism. On the flip side of that coin, part of me was stunned with excitement; as an anthropological enthusiast, the chance to experience the world from an entirely new perspective made me feel as giddy as a child on Christmas morning. A flurry of emotions was subdued by a clear sense of the moment.

Deep down, I just knew.

I had traveled halfway around the world, inexplicably found myself in a Buddhist monastery surrounded by burgundy-robed Buddhist monks, with the opportunity to become a monk myself and learn firsthand about Buddhist culture and philosophies from the spiritual heart of Myanmar.  I had wanted to experience something original, and the universe had presented me with the opportunity.  What was I supposed to do, back out now?

Traveling is not a spectator sport; I had to go all in.

~ ~ ~

My ordination ceremony took place the following day. First, my head and beard were shaved completely.  A younger monk-in-training, the same young gentleman who also served as the monastery’s cook,  used soap, water, and a box of single-blade razors to remove all of the hair from my head.  The novice monks were speechless with awe, as I’m not sure they had seen a bearded foreigner with a freshly shaved, shiny head.  I shaved my face with an ever-growing audience of curious monks; it was the first clean shave that I had had in five years.

Wearing my longyi and a white T-shirt, I returned to the bhikkhu’s quarters, where I knelt before Dahmapalla and bowed three times as a sign of respect. Repeating after Dahmapalla, I recited a passage known as the Three Refuges, which is a formal request for ordination. He then placed my robes in between us, and I proceeded to recite the Ten Precepts-rules which guide Theravada Buddhist monk’s behavior, such as abstaining from harming life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from the use of intoxicants, amongst others. Lastly, I requested that Dahmapalla be my Preceptor, or spiritual guide.  He then handed me my very own burgundy robe, alms bowl, and prayer beads.  Finally, I was given my Buddhist name—Teelahwontay.

My fellow monks—the Sangha—helped me put on my robes. I observed my new appearance in the mirror; words cannot describe the emotions I felt as I saw an unfamiliar figure looking back at me. They proceeded to take me to the 5th story roof of the monastery for a celebratory view of the Shwedagon Pagoda and downtown Yangon. Kyin waved his hand in my direction and shouted “Teelahwontay!” before snapping a picture; I had officially arrived in Wonderland.

For a precious moment, time stood still.

~ ~ ~

Zaw and a few other monks took me for a walk through downtown Yangon to the Shwedagon Pagoda the day after my ordination. The stares from locals and tourists alike were unforgettable; I felt like I was half rock star, half albino zoo animal due to all the attention directed my way.  Despite the unusualness of the situation, the Myanmar people were extraordinarily gracious, acknowledging me with inquisitive eyes and proud smiles.  Many came to greet me, asking personal questions about myself, philosophical questions about life, and expressing their joy in sharing Buddhism with the world.

Once again, I found myself unable to stop smiling.

We met at 5am every morning, gathered in a single file line, and walked barefoot through Yangon to receive steamed rice from volunteers. Many of the monks meditated for a half hour before leaving for breakfast; however a few monks hit the snooze button until they absolutely had to get up to get in line for rice on time.  I began to learn that we really weren’t that different from each other after all.  We ate together at the monastery, usually followed by a round of meditation or leisure time.

Each floor of the monastery appeared to be a large open room, and each floor served a different purpose. The 4th floor was essentially a dormitory for the older monks; despite my title of “novice monk,” I was assigned a spot on the floor and given a mat, pillow, and mosquito net. A few of the older monks slept in modest beds; their only possessions generally being their robes, a few books, and perhaps a cell phone.

We met again as a group for lunch, which usually consisted of rice, boiled vegetables, and chicken or pork. Eating meat was optional; some monks did but most did not. No food was allowed after noon, however an older monk with lively eyes and a toothless grin named Htun would sneak steamed pork rolls into the monastery for me every night because he didn’t want me to suffer from hunger. I politely attempted to decline, preferring to embrace the full experience of monastic Buddhist life, but he insisted that I not go to bed hungry. In essence, that’s how these Buddhists like to do things- unwavering kindness and compassion above all- even if it meant breaking holy rules in holy places. I could dig that.

~ ~ ~

The emotional changeover from American traveler to Buddhist monk was remarkably effortless. Levels of stress began to melt away like a block of ice. With a greater emphasis on mindfulness, I uncovered the ability to truly live in the moment. The concept of simply living took on a new, rewarding meaning. Even the sun seemed to shine brighter, the flowers smelled sweeter, and I just couldn’t stop smiling.

Attempting to sleep on the hardwood floors of the monastery was quite an experiment; amusingly enough, this may have been the greatest challenge I faced throughout my journey to Asia.  When I imagined all of the comforting indulgences that I missed from my life back home- drive-thru combo meals from Freddie’s Steakburgers, Seinfeld reruns, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, etc. – what stood out most was a comfortable mattress and cushy pillows.  Apparently, I still have a ways to go before reaching enlightenment and achieving nirvana.

Inevitably, I knew this journey would eventually come to an end. In Myanmar, that meant 28 days after the date of arrival until my American Visas expired. I packed away my robe and prayer beads.  I dug up my wallet from the depths of my backpack; my passport indicated that my name was Kevin Dimetres, and I had a signature to match.  With my plane ticket in hand, I donned a knock-off Myanmar soccer jersey, cargo shorts, and Nike trekking sneakers. The time had come to kiss the Golden Land of Myanmar—and my moment as a Buddhist monk—goodbye.

~ ~ ~

I arrived in Singapore with a sense of shock and awe at the modern world. The sensory overload seemed so unnecessary; the modern comforts so trivial. Part of me wondered if I had returned from the rabbit hole; another part of me contemplated if I had it all backwards, living in Wonderland my entire life.

Life seemed like a high-stakes game of high-speed hamster wheel Olympics.  The hubbub of everyday life was one brash, flamboyant distraction with a cherry on top and a commercial jingle to boot.

All I could do was smile.

Prior to this moment, I wasn’t sure how my Buddhist tutelage would carry over into the “real world.”  Despite my hesitations, I realized that I was more apt to handle the cultural terrain of our modern society than ever.  I had developed an arsenal of emotional tools to combat the unnecessary stressors found in any environment.  I was no longer compelled to seek happiness externally; I could easily find it within.  Everything else is just background noise.

~ ~ ~

Growing up as part of the Catholic Church, I chose “Lawrence” as my confirmation name, inspired by my youthful admiration of the Boston Celtics legendary Larry Bird. I couldn’t help but contemplate the spiritual integrity of double-dipping religious identities; nevertheless, part of me will always remain Lawrence. People continue to ask me about my religion today—am I a Buddhist, Christian, etc.?—but I’ve never been one for labels. The short answer remains the same—each religion has positive elements which we can apply to our own lives, and a greater understanding of each religion can lead to greater spiritual peace and social harmony for all mankind. We are all people, it’s our world, and we’re all in this life together. Labels should not divide us, nor should beliefs define us. The human experience is so much deeper than that; beauty can be found everywhere and within every person, and it’s limitless.

Life has a funny way of giving you what you ask for.  I wanted to learn about Buddhism, Dahmapalla wanted to teach me, the opportunity presented itself, and the rest is history.  I am no longer a Buddhist monk, but part of me will always be Teelahwontay, and I still can’t stop smiling.
Kindness and compassion above all.  I can dig that.

As an educator working with underprivileged and at-risk students in the Washington, D.C. area, Kevin Dimetres strives to visit some place new each year. He revels in the opportunity to connect with the local people at the most intimate level, embracing the spiritual essence and cultural fabric of each destination. He works as a bartender as a side job to fund his travels, saving all of his side money in a glass jar until he embarks on his next adventure, diving in headfirst at his newest destination and spending it all while living it up.

Bad Trip Silver Winner: White Water Death

April 17th, 2017

By Steve Gardiner

A drowning in Yosemite National Park

A park ranger on a horse rode up behind Terry Rypkema and me and pleaded for our help. “You have a climbing rope,” she said. “Bring it up to the bridge, please. We have a possible drowning.”

Terry and I had driven from our homes in Wyoming to Yosemite National Park with plans to climb the Snake Dike route on Half Dome, the iconic mountain every visitor sees at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. We had walked a mile up the Vernal Falls Trail to the footbridge.

Ahead of us, we could see a crowd of people standing on and around the footbridge. One man, with tear-reddened eyes, strode quickly toward us. He explained that he was the American sponsor for a group of Japanese students who were on a tour of the United States. They had been to several locations on the tour, and on this day, had walked to the Vernal Falls Footbridge to see the falls and have a picnic. Several of the teenage boys had been playing around near the Merced River, jumping from rock to rock and enjoying the day. One boy had slipped and fallen into the icy meltwater. A friend of his had tried to reach him and had either slipped in or jumped in to help rescue the first boy. The powerful current of the Merced River had swept both boys under the footbridge.

A young American man had seen their plight. He had tried to catch the first boy, but had missed him. Several people on the bridge had removed their belts and the American had made a makeshift rope out of the belts, but that had not worked either. In fact, for his trouble, the American ended up trapped in the violent white water, as well.

When Terry and I walked onto the bridge, we could see the second Japanese boy and the American stranded on a rock in the middle of the river. White water was crashing all around them. They were wet, cold, and shivering.

I tied our climbing rope to a tree, then belayed Terry down the bank to the river’s edge. Terry tossed one end of the rope out to the rock and the American helped the Japanese boy tie it around his waist. The boy moved to the edge of the rock. I held Terry secure with the belay while he talked to the boy, motioning him to leave the rock and swim to the bank. The boy hesitated. Terry motioned again for him to move. He shook his head. He had been in the freezing water once and had no interest in going in again.

“I asked him twice to come to me,” Terry said. “He froze up. He wouldn’t move, so I gave the rope a good tug.”

Launched into the water with Terry’s pull, the boy dogpaddled to the bank. He scrambled among the rocks, clawing to get up and out of the water. He was cold, stiff, and frightened.

“We reeled him in,” Terry said. “He was pretty banged up, and he was hypothermic. He was pretty happy to be on the bank with us.”

We had our backpacks with all of our clothing and camping gear next to us, so we pulled out a couple of sweaters and jackets and wrapped him in those. Two people from the bridge came down and helped him walk back to the bridge.

Terry threw the rope back out to the rock. The American tied it around his own waist and as soon as we had the rope tight, he jumped in and moved quickly to Terry. He seemed in much better shape, more coherent, than the Japanese boy, although he had scrapes and bruises from banging on the rocks in the river.

With the two safely off the rock, we returned to the bridge and met the ranger. She asked if we would help her search for the first Japanese boy. We talked to several people on the bridge and got different stories from each one. “That was the hard part for me,” Terry said. “We just couldn’t get any accurate information to help us search. It was frustrating. We weren’t sure who was still in the water and who was out. I was still hoping that we would find him clinging to the side and could help him get out.”

We walked along the river’s edge, gazing into each pool, trying to see through the tumbling water. Twice I stopped. An underwater tree branch took the form of an arm bent at the elbow. A tuft of grass waving in the current became a head of hair. Imagination. The mind sees what it wants to see.

We did not find him, so we returned to the bridge, knowing that if the ride through the cataracts had not killed him, that much time in the icy water would have. By then, a ranger with scuba-diving gear had arrived. He tied a rope to a tree for protection, lowered himself into a large pool below the bridge, and surfaced a minute later with the body.

As one, the Japanese students screamed. Their wonderful tour of America was forever marred. It was a painful scene, and we wanted no more of it. We wanted out, away. There was nothing else Terry and I could do. We took our packs and walked to the trail.

Behind us we heard a voice. The Japanese boy who had been stranded on the rock ran up to us and shook our hands. He was trying to talk to us, but he did not speak English. All he could say was, “Your name?” What could he say? What could we say? I held his hand and looked into his eyes. I won’t ever forget what they said. We couldn’t talk to each other, but our communication was real. I fought back the tears and turned up the trail.

Terry and I walked up the steep trail to Vernal Falls. We said nothing. It wasn’t just the roar of Vernal Falls that kept us from talking. We were both lost in thoughts about the dead Japanese boy and his devastated group of friends.

Just past Emerald Pool, the main trail continues east into Little Yosemite Valley, then turns north to the base of the east side of Half Dome. The standard climb, a system of cable handrails supported by steel posts drilled into the rock, leads to the summit of Half Dome. We intended to climb the west side, descend the cable route, and return to the valley the next day.

To get to the west side, we took the cut off between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap. Here, we finally stopped and talked about the drowning. We were both rattled by the events of the afternoon. We considered turning around, but decided that since we had driven all the way from Wyoming to California, we should at least set up camp at Lost Lake and see how we felt in the morning.

We began our descent from the saddle between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap to Lost Lake as the sun was fading. The shortcut turned out to be “true bushwacking,” as Terry noted, and too soon, we found ourselves stumbling through the trees in darkness. We corrected our route and ran into a swamp which we soon determined to be Lost Lake. In the confusion of the events at the Vernal Falls Footbridge, we had not refilled our water bottles. We had no water, so we filled one bottle from Lost Lake. It was clear with no bad taste, so we drank. We didn’t really have a choice. The next day we noticed a few bugs and weeds in the water, but no side effects. Perhaps, as comic relief to the serious events of the day before, we joked throughout the day about critters crawling around in our insides creating a condition we called Swamp Water Deleria.

In the morning, we found our climbing route easily and had an exciting climb on the Snake Dike. The focus on the climbing helped both of us clear our minds of the tragedy. We reached the summit and sat down for lunch. Moments later, a family arrived after climbing the cable route. The kids ran around the summit, excited about the adventure. They ran much too close to the north edge which drops a vertical mile into Yosemite Valley. Terry and I did not want to witness another disaster, so we packed up, hiked down the cable route and followed the trail down past Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. At the footbridge, we stopped. We were the only people there. It was so peaceful, so beautiful. It was hard to imagine what had happened at that same spot only 24 hours before.

The drowning in Yosemite National Park had happened on August 21, 1978. Over the years, I thought about those people. I thought about the family of the drowned boy. I thought about his friends. I wondered what happened to the Japanese boy we pulled off the rock. I wondered how the American man had recovered from his injuries. I felt sorrow for the sponsor who wanted to help the students have an incredible experience in the United States and had had to live his life with the memories of the incident at the footbridge. I did not know any of their names. I did not know anything about them except for the few scraps of information we heard during the brief time we were at the bridge. I assumed that I would never hear any more about any of them.

Then, on February 9, 2016, more than 37 years after the drowning, I discovered a book called Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite on a library shelf. I picked up the book and saw a section on drownings. It did not take long to find the event Terry and I had witnessed. The authors, Ghiglieri and Farabee, analyzed over 900 deaths in Yosemite from falls, drownings, murders, suicides, and various other causes. The account of the drowning covered a page and a half.

The boy who drowned was 16. His name was Chol Han from Kyoto Fu, Japan. The boy who ended up stranded on the rock in the middle of the river was Uchi Urano. The American who tried to save the boys and attempted to use the rope made of belts was James Sumpter from San Diego.

The authors interviewed many witnesses about the drowning and concluded that Han had been showing off while rock-hopping, leading to his initial fall into the river. They explained that after he attempted to grab the belts, “the current swept him away. Indeed, Sumpter had ventured so far out into the river to help Han that he too was swept downstream in Han’s wake. Two unidentified rock climbers who happened along the shoreline at this moment now rushed forward into the river to save Sumpter. By the time they hauled him out of the water, he had suffered cuts and bruises and head injuries. This helpful pair of climbers-now-rescuers then quickly turned their attention to yet another Japanese student, Uchi Urano. Also 16 years old, Urano too had jumped into the Merced to help rescue Han, and he too had been swept down the whitewater for his troubles. Luckily the two mystery climbers managed to snag Urano, too. In short, had it not been for the timely advent of these two climbers, Han’s episode may very likely have resulted in the deaths of Sumpter and Urano—his two would-be-rescuers.”

We were strangers, gathered in an instant of white water death in the icy currents of the Merced River. We had only a brief time together at the Vernal Falls footbridge, but that experience is a thread that runs through nearly four decades of our lives and leaves us with a sense of tragedy, a very human moment, amidst the beauty and grandeur of the rivers, trees, and mountains of Yosemite National Park.

Steve Gardiner recently retired after teaching high school English and journalism for 38 years.  He is the 2008 Montana Teacher of the Year and is a National Board Certified Teacher.  He has published over 600 articles in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, and many others.  He has published three books about mountain climbing and one about teaching reading.

Elder Travel Gold Winner: The Elevator in Rome

April 10th, 2017

By Bill Zarchy

Stuck on a hot day.

“I’ve gotta get out of here!” shrieked the voice from the corner. “You don’t understand. I’m claustrophobic!”

It was a warm summer day. Susan and I had boarded an elevator in a poorly air-conditioned archaeological museum in Rome, along with a dozen people from our tour group, and Rachel, our English guide.

We only had to go up two floors, but we had already climbed many steps on this tour, and the elevator would save us trekking up a couple of long staircases. Rachel pushed the button and the door closed. The elevator gave a small lurch, then nothing.

I looked at Susan. She smiled at me, her eyes a bit wide. I smiled back. I knew that getting stuck in an elevator—especially if she had to pee—had long been one of her worst fears. Rachel hit the Open button. Nothing happened.

Susan squeezed my hand. The elevator was hot and stuffy, but we were still there on the ground floor, right next to the main desk of the museum. And we had just used the bathroom.

“What’s going on?” called a woman in the back corner of the elevator.

“Well, we seem to be stuck here for a moment,” Rachel said cheerfully. “But no worries. I’m calling for help.” She wore a mic and headset, which enabled her to communicate with our other tour leaders, who were right outside, waiting their turn to go up. In fact, everyone on our tour wore lightweight headsets, so we could hear Rachel’s descriptions as we toured Rome.

The tour was run by Roadscholar, formerly known as Elderhostel. I think they rebranded because they wanted to market to younger people, and most of their clientele didn’t want to stay in hostels. Our group consisted mostly of folks like us, in their late 60s. Some older, some younger.

Susan hadn’t had an elevator phobia when we met decades before, but over the years she had grown more and more fearful of taking the lift. She would insist on going to the bathroom before riding an elevator, any elevator. Or she would avoid the elevator altogether. When we traveled as a family in earlier years, I would often elevate with the kids, while she sought out the stairs.

Unfortunately, not all stairs go to the same levels as the elevators, and sometimes they are in different parts of the building. Several times we were briefly separated in airports and hotels. Occasionally her phobia led to scary situations, especially one panicky day at the Eiffel Tower, when I took the elevator to the top with the kids, and she suddenly got off at the first level and walked down. Just before we finally found each other on the ground hours later, a human body, an apparent suicide, dropped on the ground next to her.

Earlier on that same trip, she opted to take the stairs—often over a hundred of them—up out of the London Tube, as the rest of us zipped up the elevator and waited on the sidewalk for her. Thankfully, some stations had long escalators.

As we grew older, however, huge staircases had become more challenging. We knew couples where one spouse’s fears had severely limited their ability to travel together, and Susan acknowledged that her elevator phobia was getting in the way. She sought help and began to work with a psychologist. He met weekly with her, at first giving her exercises designed to reduce anxiety. It would be many months before they actually got into an elevator.

Susan learned how to find her happy place, how to visualize calm and bring it into her daily routine. He taught her to acknowledge the fear (“It’s just a feeling”), but not to let it determine her behavior. She practiced reminding herself that her goal—going up or down in a building/airport/museum/hotel—was more important to her than giving in to her panic.

Eventually, they began riding elevators, first together, then Susan alone. A few times she practiced with me. Though she still didn’t like boarding elevators with a full bladder, she slowly overcame her fears. After a year of this behavioral therapy, I took a saucy photo of her posing in a hotel elevator, which she presented to her therapist as a parting gift.

In the museum elevator in Rome, the woman in the corner called out, “We’re stuck? You’ve got to get me out!”

“We’re fine,” said Rachel. “We’re still on the ground, just need to get the door open.”

“I’ve gotta get out of here!” shrieked the voice from the corner. “You don’t understand. I’m claustrophobic!”

It was already warm and humid and crowded in the elevator, but this last exchange seemed to raise the heat by ten degrees. Susan and I smiled at each other again. Her eyes grew wider. She squeezed my hand harder.

Another woman on our tour turned toward the corner. “It’ll be fine, dear. None of us are happy about this. Let’s try to chill together now.”

“I’ve gotta get out. What are they doing to let us out?”

“I’m talking to them now,” said Rachel. “Hang on.” She was speaking over her headset in Italian. “Si, si, grazie.”


“They’re going to get the key.”

“They don’t know where the key is? They’re incompetent, that’s the problem!”

“Everyone can hear you on the headsets. It’s all right. They know where the key is. They just have to … go get it.”

“Oh, I hate this,” wailed the woman. I turned as best I could in the tight elevator car, trying to identify the voice.

“It’s Ellen,” I whispered to Susan.

She called out softly, “Ellen, it’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” But both of us knew telling others not to worry was often a fool’s errand.

“How do you know? They can’t even find the key. We’re never going to get out of here!”

Just then we heard a mechanical rattling at the door.

“See?” said Rachel soothingly. “Not to worry. They’ve got the key. They’re going to open the door now.”

The rattling stopped, followed by the sound of something metallic hitting the ground.

“They’ve dropped the key! It’s probably lost! Tell them to call the fire department.”

It seemed to grow hotter, and, if possible, even more humid. I could feel sweat trickling down my back. Rachel continued to speak quietly in Italian to the other guides, who were just outside. Then, to Ellen, “They can still hear you.”

“I don’t give a crap. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Nobody does, here in this goddamn backward country. Tell them they should call the fucking fire department.”

I looked at Ellen’s husband, a tall guy in a straw hat in a different corner, staring at the ceiling. Silent.

Susan had clawed my hand pretty hard by now, but she stayed calm. “Ellen,” she called. “Take a deep breath. Try to stay calm. I understand. I’m claustrophobic too, but if you try not to panic, it’ll help us all to get through this.”

Good advice. She was validating Ellen’s fears but urging her to control her behavior—for her own good, and everyone else’s—rather than denying the feelings or giving in to panic.

The rattling in the door started again, followed by another clanging key drop.

The guides chattered to Rachel in Italian. “It seems to be the wrong key,” she reported after a pause. I wondered why she told us this.

“Ellen, breathe again,” called Susan. Ellen whimpered a bit, but she stopped shrieking.

Then we heard a banging on the door. “Stand back,” said Rachel.

A steel rod poked through the rubber gaskets between the two closed elevator doors. Whoever wielded it jerked the rod back and forth violently, determined to get us out quickly. The metal doors bulged, groaned, then suddenly popped open with a loud scraping sound.

The fifteen of us flooded out into the lobby, nearly knocking over the sweaty guards who had freed us. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes had elapsed since we entered the elevator.

Energized by our release, we swarmed up 60 steps on an ornate, white marble staircase, feeling liberated and refreshed. The rest of our tour group was waiting there, beyond the reach of the headsets, and they didn’t know about our problem.

“Where were you? What happened?” We filled them in quickly, then got back to our tour, marveling at the mosaics, sculpture, coins, and artifacts.

I smiled at Susan and hugged her. I was so proud of the way she had dealt with confronting her worst fear, proud that she wasn’t the one who had panicked, proud that she had helped calm Ellen down.

Later I told some of our fellow travelers about Susan’s elevator phobia, therapy, and success. Several came up to her in the next few days to offer congratulations and thanks. We never discussed the elevator with Ellen and her husband. Somehow it never came up.

We moved on. The glories of Rome once again demanded our attention, and the memory of our confinement faded. In an odd way, in hindsight, our scamper up the 60 stairs began to seem empowering and significant, like an army storming a strategic hill. Why had we wanted to take that smelly old elevator, anyway?

But later, as we strolled through the Pantheon, awed by the beauty and antiquity of our surroundings, I remembered some of our friends who could not travel, crippled by fears of airplanes, bridges, unfamiliar food, disrupted daily routines, messed-up sleep patterns, strange toilets, and, yes, elevators.

I was fortunate to work all over the globe during my career as a cinematographer, but Susan and I had long hoped to travel together after retirement. I thought about our recent trips to France, Holland, and Italy, and upcoming trips to Ireland, Scotland, and Israel.

I began to appreciate my dear wife all over again. Conquering her fears had opened up the world, for both of us, and we would not be trapped at home by her phobia.

Bill Zarchy is a writer, teacher, and recently retired director of photography who has shot film and video projects in 30 countries and 40 states. His first book, Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil, chronicles his work and travels around the world. Bill’s second book, currently in progress, is a time travel novel called Finding George Washington. His tales from the road, technical articles, and personal essays have appeared in American Cinematographer, Emmy, and other trade magazines, Travelers’ Tales and Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers and literary publications.

Family Travel Gold Winner: Making the Great Migration

April 3rd, 2017

By Sarah Enelow

An American woman makes a pilgrimage to Mississippi, where her black family lived during slavery and segregation, then retraces their 1941 exodus to Detroit by train.

I stared up at a concrete obelisk streaked with black dirt. It bore an etching of a confederate flag and read, “The men were right who wore the gray and right can never die.” A dozen people, black and white, milled around on a sunny, 60-degree afternoon in January. This tiny town consisted of a central square, a few roads leading away from it, and not much else.

I’d come to Lexington in the Mississippi Delta to finally see the town where my late mother was born in 1939. Six million black people fled the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration, during which Mama’s family traded Mississippi for Detroit in 1941. I’d never been to either place.

Mama’s family had always been a mystery to me. I’d never met any of her relatives, I’d heard only a few stories about them, and I didn’t even find photos of them until after Mama died. Many of Mama’s close relatives passed away before I was born, but she lost touch with the others when she left Detroit to pursue her education. Though Mama and I were close, she really never spoke of that painful decision, and I didn’t press her.

Three years ago, at the age of 73, Mama died of cancer under my care in Chicago, where she’d lived for many years. So suddenly, at age 30, I felt like my maternal roots were slipping away, and maybe a piece of my biracial identity with them. For the last three years I’d been exhausted from care-taking, grieving, and the perpetual to-do list of death (handling her remains, doing her taxes, emptying her apartment), but I finally summoned the energy for a pilgrimage. I wanted to visit Mississippi, then take the train up to Detroit, like so many migrants did, hoping to recover a piece of Mama and feel rooted in my own blackness.

Upon arriving in Lexington, Mississippi, I had trouble locking my rental car—typical New Yorker—which was coincidentally a Chrysler, the company that employed my grandfather after the family settled up in Detroit. I stopped an older black man walking by to help me; he looked to be from Mama’s generation, and when he cordially introduced himself as Otha Redmond, my ears perked up. In my wildest dreams for this trip, I’d mysteriously bump into some distant relative, so I asked if he was related to an Alga Mae Redmond, my grandmother.

“Oh I don’t know ‘bout that, there are lots of Redmonds ‘round here,” Otha said, tenderly taking my hand and noting with a smile, “I’d sure like to go up North and see some of these pretty ladies like yourself!” I beamed, squeezed his soft wrinkled hand, and thanked him for his time. I thought with the minuscule size of this town, he could be a second or third cousin after all.

I felt eyes on me as I wandered around Lexington, photographing faded brick buildings with my phone, breathing deeply to smell the clean, floral air. I stuck out with my knee-high boots, big sunglasses, and brisk pace: clearly a city-girl. I grew up in rural Texas with my parents and older brother, but I’d been living in New York for ten years and it showed. I left the South as soon as I graduated from high school and never lived there again. Even a half-white-half-black girl like me yearned for the urban North. Despite being light-skinned, my curly afro and “black girl ass” had gotten me bullied and ostracized in white rural Texas, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I’d made a series of phone calls and emails to people in Lexington—the City Clerk, the one-woman Historical Society, the Chamber of Commerce—before being connected with a man named Phil Cohen who had the information I sought: the location of the former Lexington Colored High School, from which my grandfather graduated in 1938. That graduation was a big deal; his predecessors only completed a few grades of school or none at all, and if you go back into Reconstruction and slavery years, his ancestors were documented as farm laborers who could neither read nor write.

Phil Cohen, white and seemingly in his 70s, owned a clothing store on the square. We sat down toward the back, next to the work boots and men’s plaid shirts, and he showed me an old binder containing research on the area. In an age when I expect everything to be digital, this was a rare bit of hard-copy material, and I felt lucky that this history buff cared enough to share it. Then again, there were Cohens in my father’s Jewish family, so right off the bat, Phil and I had this tiny scrap of common ground.

Phil reported to me that the Lexington Colored High School changed hands after integration began in the 1960s and became the Ambrose School, but that was later knocked down and made into a Head Start. He said there was a plaque on-site noting the former Ambrose School, and that would be the only hint of past segregation.

After two minutes behind the wheel, I was at the Head Start. The building was closed and there were a couple of trailers and an AME church across the street. I parked on the side of the road and walked over to photograph the smooth marble plaque, trying to imagine the old segregated institution using the only tools at my disposal: a black-and-white photo of my grandfather, the tissue-thin paper program from his graduation ceremony, and my imagination.

Standing there in a cool breeze, I smiled and felt a sense of accomplishment, like I’d fit a piece into the half-assembled puzzle of my background. I hadn’t actually brought any photos or heirlooms with me—they were too few and precious to risk losing them. At home I had only one tiny photo of Mama as a baby, with smooth brown skin and short kinky hair, in a diaper playing happily in the dirt, but I wasn’t sure where in Lexington it was taken.

I’d planned to drive from Lexington to Yazoo City, where my great-grandparents had lived, and I actually had their address from 1920—a rare detail. Government record-keeping for black Americans was often poor to nonexistent during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. I’d been digging through, reviewing census records and burial records and war draft forms and marriage licenses to complement what my parents had told me (my father still being alive), but most of the Mississippi addresses I encountered (e.g. house #4, dwelling #577, family #637) didn’t exist in the present day, according to City Hall in the state capitol, Jackson. In addition, 209 Third Street in Yazoo City might have moved in the last 100 years, and I couldn’t confirm whether East or West Third Street was the one. This kind of research made me think twice about all the times I lazily abbreviated my address on a government form.

Researching my father’s white family had been far easier. More records existed; these relatives were allowed to marry, vote, and take part in other documented institutions when black people could not; education was available to them, so they could fill out their own forms; and despite some relatives anglicizing their Jewish names, the names were still more uniform in spelling and easier to follow. My father’s Jewish ancestors made their own migration in 1892, going from Russia all the way to Pennsylvania, Kansas, and then Los Angeles over the course of several generations, spanning an ocean and two continents, yet my mother’s family was more difficult to trace over just a few states.

On the local radio, James Brown was keeping my spirits up as I drove west toward the Mississippi River, deeper into the Delta. The land turned marshy and smelled of wet grass, and I passed several cotton plantations. From the two-lane road I saw signs for these farms, but no people, partly because January wasn’t harvesting time (the fields brown rather than white), but also because the industry now used machines to do the work of former sharecroppers and slaves. It seemed this land had hardly developed since slavery days: the fields looked untouched, the houses were deteriorating, the population was sparse, there wasn’t a big-box store in sight, and cotton was still a staple crop.

Pulling into Yazoo City, which was much bigger than Lexington, I found West Third Street. The worn, one-story houses were pale yellow and mint green, and it appeared to be a majority black neighborhood. I drove along Third Street several times and reached the sad conclusion that house number 209 didn’t exist anymore. Feeling disappointed, I snapped photos of the block and felt the sun warming my shoulders. I drove over to East Third Street, which was physically cut off from West Third Street by trees and the railroad tracks, and I got the feeling that East Third was on the white side of town.

Having chased century-old ghosts all day, I felt exhausted and unsettled. I left Yazoo City as quickly as possible, as though someone was chasing me out, and I sped back to Jackson, where I was staying during these few days in Mississippi. By the time I arrived back at my hotel, which was the former site of the state’s first integrated swimming pool, I was feeling heavy pangs of loneliness.

At age 33 I was single with no kids and I badly wanted to start my own family. Losing Mama had intensified my desire for children, who would add to what little family I had left: my father in Texas and my older brother in Oregon. My father’s relatives were nearly strangers to me; I’d only met them a couple of times while growing up because my father wasn’t close with them. In Texas we lived thousands of miles from them on the west coast, and they were Jewish, which felt so foreign because I was raised Christian.

In my silent hotel room, with Judge Judy wagging a disapproving finger on mute, I flopped down on the soft flowery bedspread and cried. I was hoping that Mississippi would mysteriously soothe my loneliness, but what did I expect? I had no family there, only the shadows of ancestors. I ate takeout fried catfish from down the street and slept fitfully that night, fighting off a searing migraine.

One morning in Jackson, I made it my business to tour the capitol building. This was the same capitol that existed during Mama’s and my grandparent’s Mississippi years, i.e. the spot where so many Jim Crow laws had been passed, requiring my relatives to use segregated restrooms and yield the sidewalk to white people; to answer to “boy” and avoid white lunch counters; to have access to just a few degrading, low-paying jobs; to know that the police would not keep them safe from rapes and lynchings.

The capitol’s halls were filled with portraits of local politicians, including former Governor Ross Barnett from the early 1960s, who gained huge local popularity with his white supremacist platform, and famously denied James Meredith entry to the University of Mississippi in 1962. In the capitol’s dome there’s a bust of blindfolded Lady Justice right alongside a painting of Confederate soldiers raising their flag. The mural that honors Mississippi’s roots includes a European explorer, a Confederate soldier, and two Native Americans, but no one of African descent. Even the Mississippi state flag contains a Confederate flag therein. In rural Texas, I was raised around these symbols and accepted them as status quo; only after living up north did I gain some perspective.

After touring the capitol, I walked through downtown Jackson and felt it was only half alive. Jackson was the state’s pride and joy, yet so many of its downtown storefronts were empty and gathering dust, there was practically zero foot traffic, and just a couple blocks west of the capitol building, the city looked totally bombed out, houses singed black, literally cracking in half and sinking into the ground. Mississippi is consistently ranked one of the poorest states in the country, with about 22% of its residents living below the poverty line. It seemed like the state never really recovered from the post-Civil War collapse of the Southern economy, which hung on slave labor, not to mention how expensive it was to maintain twice the number of public facilities during segregation.

Ready to leave Mississippi, having returned my rental Chrysler, I walked to the Jackson Amtrak station around 5pm with my old black Jansport backpack. I waited on a long wooden bench to board the northbound train to Chicago, where I’d transfer to ultimately reach Detroit, a 31-hour trip in total. Jackson’s station was busy, filled mostly with black people with packages and rolling suitcases, and I thought about how many sharecroppers left the South in secret, under the cover of darkness, for fear of retribution from their white overseers. And there I was, doing this voluntarily on paid vacation time from my steady retail job, looking forward to putting my feet up and eating my veggie sandwich.

Jackson’s evening sky was deep blue and soon enough, the train started chugging north. We hit Yazoo City, whose station was just a couple of outdoor benches, and as night rapidly fell, we passed dozens of beat-up houses, a rough looking bar. Two more stops brought us up to Memphis, Tennessee around 10pm, a far larger city than Jackson, but still firmly Southern. After Tennessee we’d pass through just a sliver of Kentucky, then Illinois.

Once upon a time, crossing into Illinois meant freedom, meant that those confined to the “colored” car could theoretically (if not practically) move freely about the train, which I’d been doing this whole time. I badly wanted to know what Mama’s family was thinking when they passed that border between south and north. Mama was too young to remember, but were her parents too nervous to walk into the white car? Did they walk in confidently? What kind of food did they bring for the long ride? Was it the same perfectly fried chicken that Mama used to make, taught by her grandmother? Did they have winter coats already? I didn’t know for sure whether Mama’s family took the train when they migrated; a few of them probably drove because my great-grandparents were lucky enough to have a car, but for those who took the train, it would have been a very similar route to mine.

I began to fall asleep wrapped in my soft black scarf with my head of tight frizzy curls against the window. I deeply breathed the train’s cool recycled air, feeling anxious to visit Detroit for the first time, thinking my relatives must have been more than anxious about starting their new lives. I woke up at 6am firmly in the north, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and I smiled because I knew the glittering beacon of Chicago was near. I always felt more at-home in the urban North, as did Mama, and I felt her presence around me.

I had a five-hour layover in my beloved, familiar Chicago. Mama passed away there—my brother and I scattered her ashes over Lake Michigan as she’d wanted—and she lived in Chicago for nearly twenty years total, first in the 1960s and then the final years of her life in the 2000s. She also had a few family members living there at various points. I’d never lived in Chicago myself, but I visited Mama there many times and knew that more than Detroit, cosmopolitan Chicago was her true love.

I walked out of Chicago’s stately Beaux Arts station, heading into the gusty, 20-degree downtown loop to stretch my cramped legs and find some steamy black tea. I was now shivering inside the cornflower blue winter coat I’d ignored down in Mississippi, but a cold winter felt happily like home to me. I already felt more in my element than I had in Mississippi, trading hot for cold, country for city, car for train.

I boarded the train from Chicago to Detroit and settled in for a six-hour ride, and a high-cheeked young woman asked to sit next to me. Naomi was just 22 to my 33 and we slipped easily into a familiar conversation: how to care for our tight, coarse, dark curls; which products to use; how to wrap it at night; how to respond when people ask you point-blank about being mixed or light-skinned. Naomi’s parents were both light-skinned black, and at times she had to justify her own blackness to ignorant white people who assumed she had a white parent.

“I always thought I was regular black,” she said.

“You are!” I replied. “White people don’t understand what they’re saying. Just tell them firmly what you are and be proud.”

“Yeah, I hate those conversations.”

“They have no right to ask you to prove your blackness. White people always think they can decide who’s black and who isn’t, based on fake criteria they invented themselves.”

“I know, right?”

Naomi’s smile was broad and toothy, and we looked pretty similar—for a minute she felt like the sister I never had.

Naomi was born and raised in Detroit and had family in Mississippi she’d never visited. I quickly suggested, “Go see them, while they’re still alive!” to which she said “You’re right, I really should,” as she stared out the window, trying to picture it. Talking to her made me feel less lonely on this trip, like I was part of a larger metaphorical family, the children of the Migrants, of the global African Diaspora.

Naomi reminded me of that divide between the members of a black family who stayed behind in the South and those that fled North. She knew little about her relatives’ Southern lifestyle and it seemed they knew little of her city-savvy upbringing. In Mama’s case, everyone went North or West, but either way, there was immense pressure to succeed once you got there, to prove that you’d made the right move, that it was worth it and your life was demonstrably better.

The train passed Ann Arbor (where my parents fell in love at the University of Michigan), Naomi disembarked with a hug in Dearborn, and eventually I pulled into snowy Detroit after midnight. I caught the shuttle van to my B&B, consisting of several red brick Victorian houses, looking the way I’d imagined Detroit in its 1950s heyday: booming from post-war industry, looking ahead to Motown.

The following day, I asked the shuttle service to take me to a house that once belonged to my great-aunt, who’d raised Mama. I was surprised to learn that I couldn’t walk to the house, due to a massive highway and lack of sidewalks, nor could I take the bus, nor was there a subway, and apparently the B&Bs free shuttle service would take me anywhere within a few miles. The shuttle driver was a young, black, doe-eyed artist named A.G. whose back-story was like Naomi’s: raised in Detroit with some family still down in Mississippi. Finding yet another Mississippi-to-Detroit story helped me feel connected anew to my surroundings.

A.G. was describing his drawings of Detroit as we rolled up to Virginia Park Street. I climbed out of the van and walked down the block before circling back to number 1710. It was a red brick house with a yellow door under a simple arch, one apartment downstairs and one upstairs. There was a red bicycle lying on its side on the patchy front lawn, a rundown yellow garage in the back, and the house looked boarded up.

Just before A.G. and I pulled away, a 20-something white guy in a sedan drove up alongside us. “You lookin’ at that house?” he asked unsmiling, leaning stiffly out his window. “My relatives lived there decades ago,” I said. Apparently he’d owned the house for a year and a half, before which it was abandoned for four years. Honestly it looked abandoned right then, but I could still feel Mama with me.

A.G. and I drove on to Central High School, from which Mama graduated in 1957. I climbed out of the van and lurked around the school, closed for the weekend, taking pictures of its trimmed hedges and red brick, patches of crunchy snow on the ground, the air cold and crisp. With the help of her old yearbook, I tried to imagine Mama as a promising senior, member of the French Club, Feature Editor of the school paper, and singer in the choir. I imagined her in her crisp white collared shirt, her kinky hair painstakingly ironed straight and plaited into two innocent braids, her glowing brown skin and broad nose and high cheek bones, sitting in classes with both black and white students, many of them Jewish. There was something extra painful about picturing Mama as a young woman—I couldn’t believe her entire life had already come and gone.

The school itself had been kept up cleanly, though the surrounding neighborhood felt different. As we drove off, some houses looked like they’d been torched. One had busted-in walls, a caved-in roof, and Bible quotes hastily painted on the sides. It dared me not to come back and I felt motion-sick in the van.

Mama’s Detroit years were among the last great ones for the city, which declared the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy to-date in 2013. Upon migrating there back in 1941, my grandfather went from little to no work prospects in Lexington to working steadily on a Chrysler assembly line in Detroit. My great-grandfather went from working in a whites-only barber shop in Lexington to owning his own barber shop in Detroit. Mama went from the maximum possibility of a colored high school education to earning a master’s degree in French Literature at the University of Michigan.

But still, in the urban North, the family struggled at times. Even in the Promised Land, black people were still at the bottom of most ladders, only offered low-level jobs, targeted by greedy real estate brokers, and they encountered racism from white northerners who resented their new black refugee neighbors, who were appearing in droves, often unaccustomed to big-city life. I have a friend whose white grandparents lived in Detroit during the Great Migration and they openly blamed the city’s decline on black people. Mama’s family arrived in Detroit just two years before the city’s massive 1943 race riots, sparked by this very tension, and I wish I knew how that affected them.

On my last night in Detroit, having visited all the places on my list, I lay down on my four poster bed at the B&B with a relaxing sense of completion. This pilgrimage had finally put images and sensations and emotions into my brain that I could connect to the old stories I’d heard from Mama, and connect to the biracial identity in my heart. And I could tell my future children about this trip, tell them about their roots, and take them to my own homeland in rural Texas, and show them how I found my true home in New York. At the end of the day, both the South and the North were part of me, and even though Mama was gone, those puzzle pieces of my background would always be securely in place.

Sarah Enelow was born on Long Island with biracial roots but grew up in rural Texas. She now lives in New York City. She received degrees from Vassar College and Indiana University, followed by a Fulbright Grant to Argentina. Her writing has been featured by Salon, Skift, Ducts, The Huffington Post, Not For Tourists, and Go! Girl Guides, among others.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner: The Remnants of War—A Meditation on Peleliu

March 27th, 2017

By Anna Vodicka

On Peleliu, the roads are paved with coral—a once-living thing, a hardy animal. The coral came from the inland ridges and valleys of this two-by-six-mile speck among specks in the island nation of Palau, in western Micronesia, an almost invisible scene in the shadow of bigger acts in the Pacific, where land itself is a kind of debris, cast from the ocean by tectonic clashes and shifts that left things topsy-turvy, bottom-up, fish-out-of-water. Before: an underwater reef, an ecosystem of competitive individuals. After: a coral atoll bleaching into a future island paradise. Something new under the sun.

During World War II’s Pacific theater of operations, the coral was harvested, carted, crushed, and laid at the feet of foreign militaries that took turns stripping Peleliu from the inside out. The Japanese landed first, evacuating locals and engineering a complex subterranean network of five hundred natural and man-made caves, bunkers and tunnels that still make up the island underground. Next, the Americans came in waves, and died in waves. In September, 1944, the first boats struck reef, forcing soldiers to sprint knee-deep for shore, where the Japanese waited under cover. For better aerial views, the U.S. experimented with a new technology: Corsairs rained napalm bombs from the sky, stripping the island naked, exposing rock and rotting machinery where jungle used to be. To win the battle, Americans used flamethrowers to trap the Japanese in their hives, then sealed off the entrances.

We never learned about it in school, but the Battle of Peleliu was one of the war’s bloodiest, with the highest casualty rate in the Pacific theater. More than 10,000 Japanese and 1,800 American soldiers died over control of a tiny airstrip of “questionable strategic value”—which means that once the smoke cleared and the war waged north, the airstrip was all but forgotten. American soldiers were told the fray would take three days. It lasted seventy-three. They thought they had sufficient backup, but no one expected the tangled web of caves and hideouts awaiting them. It was one hundred and fifteen degrees. When freshwater came at all, it sometimes arrived in unclean barrels slick with oil. They drank.

This was coral’s contribution to the war: a road through hell, crunching beneath the weight of landing craft, artillery, and the leather-soled boots of 40,000 marching men.

Back then, the coral road was rough and sharp. Bodies littered the beaches, and the tide rose red, washing warm waves over them.

But over time, the coral packed and fused, bone by bone, forming a rock-solid sheet of road that now shines so slick you could practically strap skates on and glide. The beaches glow white beneath equatorial sun, and the tides wash up sea glass in aquamarine, sage green and burnt sienna—remnants of sake and beer bottles baptized, over and over again, by the churning sea.

~ ~ ~

On a November weekend, friends and I took the State Boat from Palau’s main island of Koror to Peleliu, an hour south. We were all living in Palau for the reasons most expats do: attorneys, nurses, aid workers, all hired for temporary contract work by a government that, since the war, has modeled itself on the U.S. system. (Clerk in Paradise! read the subject of a job announcement my partner received from Palau’s Supreme Court.)

It’s a wonder the islands welcome foreigners at all, considering Palau’s recent history, a 130-year tale of colonization that features an all-star roster of power players. England brought guns and smallpox, decimating Palau’s population from 40,000 to 4,000. Spain brought missionaries and trade, then sold the islands to Germany. Germany imported mining equipment, invasive monkeys to serve as the proverbial canary, and jail. Japan annexed Palau during World War I, kept up the mines, and divvied and developed the land, clan ownership be damned.

When the Allies won the war, and so many Pacific islands, Palau became a Trust Territory of the UN under American governance, eventually entering into a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. in 1994. Its constitution, drafted in 1979 and implemented in 1981, reads like the United States’ might if it was drafted today—except that it includes a ban on the possession of personal firearms, a direct response to the violent bloodshed Palauans witnessed between East and West, the so-called “developed” world, over the last century. The constitution originally outlawed nuclear weapons, waste, and power, as well, but the U.S. refused to concede this point, and eventually negotiated a provision that allows the storage of nuclear material in Palau during times of war or emergency.

We were traveling to Peleliu that November in part to get to know the work of Cleared Ground Demining, a UK charity currently funded in Palau by Australia. Co-founded by Cassandra McKeown and Steve Ballinger, a former British Army royal engineer, Cleared Ground works to eliminate landmines and other explosive remnants of war around the world.

After the war, hundreds of Peleliu’s caves remained sealed. Others were open to the public, explored by tourists who unwittingly wandered among unexploded ordnance, or UXOs. When Cleared Ground arrived on island in 2009, they swept the popular “1,000 Man Cave” of over 600 pieces of ordnance before deeming it safe for visitors. And when Palau’s government decided to unseal a cave and repatriate remains in anticipation of a 2015 visit from Japan’s Emperor and Empress—the imperial couple’s first-ever trip to the island, in honor of the anniversary of war—Cleared Ground was called upon to clear the way. Its workers donned breathing apparatuses, the first to enter when the stone rolled away from the tomb.

The State Boat, as usual, was packed: any trip to the outer islands is a chance for Palauans to deliver store-bought luxuries to far-flung family and friends. We cozied up beside our fellow passengers, two rusty vehicles, cans of gasoline, stacks of Pampers and toilet paper, and towering racks of Budweiser (Palau is what you might call a beerocracy: a democratic republic of 20,000 people with a President and a state-elected Congress reigning alongside the Council of Chiefs—rubaks, traditional clan leaders—a power struggle that ends every Payday Weekend when the King of Beers rules them all. Per capita, it’s the fourth-smallest country on Earth, and the world’s largest consumer of Bud.)

As we sailed, I spoke with Andy Johns, an ex-Royal Air Force ammunition technician contracted as a technical field manager by Cleared Ground. Andy is in his late fifties, wears his hair in a buzzed flat-top, and chain smokes with such dexterity that I never actually see him light up. He tells me about the shit he’s seen traveling to the underworlds of Afghanistan, Dubai and Laos hunting unexploded ordnance. The work is humanitarian, but Andy and Steve both derive a certain amount of boyish satisfaction from the fact that their life’s work is to watch things safely explode.

Statistics show that 30 to 40 percent of explosives released during World War II never detonated on impact. When I asked how many of those might be duds, Andy shrugged and guessed a small percentage. Later, Steve said flatly, “All failed ordnance is still deadly.” For a jocular, outgoing Englishman, the subject held no humor.

After the battle, the people of Peleliu made productive use of war leftovers. In its initial survey of Peleliu, Cleared Ground found grenades, projectiles, and other UXOs on 26 percent of private and community properties, including the community meeting house, tourist attractions, and Peleliu Elementary School. They found folks who literally paid an arm and leg when they used pilfered gunpowder for fishing (due to repeat catastrophes and environmental damage, blast fishing is now illegal). One family had used torpedoes to prop up the limping framework of a house. During his first week in Palau, Andy stopped a man from unwittingly lighting a burn pile over a bomb.

In addition to search and recovery, Cleared Ground trains its local Palauan staff to recognize and safely remove UXOs—at last count, over 32,000 items since they arrived in Palau in 2009. Weekly half-page newspaper ads warn readers: “Have you seen any bombs? On land or in the ocean. Please call to report 778-BOMB. Unexploded Ordnance is still very dangerous and can injure or kill!!!!”

I had had my own unwitting encounter. On our first scuba dive in Palau, my partner and I explored Helmet Wreck, an upright Japanese freighter grown over with hard and soft corals, with a cargo of aircraft engines, medicine and sake bottles, gas masks, stacks of the eponymous helmets, and piles of rusty rifles and bullets. I, too, was rusty; when a fellow diver swam below deck to examine some tanks, I followed in a state of blissful ignorance, forgetting all the reasons you’re not supposed to enter dark, cave-like, predator-friendly spaces. Two weeks later, all dive companies were advised against Helmet Wreck trips. Turns out the ship was also laden with depth charges whose outer casings had been gradually eroding, leaking a stream of toxic acids that destroy, among other bodily functions I’d prefer to maintain, the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. It was one of Cleared Ground’s highest-priority operations.

Seventy years and most of the veterans of the last great war have passed, but the ammunition lives on. And on. And on.

~ ~ ~

The next day, we were biking the coral roads, fighting to stay upright, the tread on our motley collection of rusting island cycles no match for the rain-slick terrain. The road was a giant gray Slip-and-Slide, humbling even the most skilled among us—an Australian Navy officer, for example, who wins triathlons and was in training for a tour in the Dolomites, went down hard shortly after his equally sporty wife, their knees and elbows clattering on the coral pavement like bags of bones. They cursed and examined the cuts and scrapes, which take on new meaning in the tropics. The jungle never simply goes for blood, but oozing infection, ulceric rot, and all kinds of bacterial nastiness that thrive in the humid Petri dish of the islands.

We ditched our bikes and followed the Cleared Ground crew down an unmarked trail, where we searched the overgrowth for caves, shadows, holes in the surface of otherwise dense tropical scenery—an exercise in mistrusting your environment, and your own two eyes, even in broad daylight. One by one, we followed Steve, Cassandra, and Andy down into a cave, descending into an underworld of bat guano and muck, heat and sweat, a man-made planet of darkness where you hold the artifacts of war—a tin bowl, a laceless boot—and you think of a soldier who licked that bowl and whose boots licked the bottom of this lowly barrel, and you imagine what his short, long-gone life was like.

Above ground, we pedaled on, sweating in the midday heat, to visit Peleliu’s war attractions. (That’s how they’re billed, places of war: “attractions.”) Bloody Beach. The Japanese Canon. The Airstrip of Questionable Value. And the site of greatest carnage, Bloody Nose Ridge.

In order to overtake the ridge, U.S. marines had to cross the open airfield. Perched in their caves inside the coral mountain, Japanese snipers picked them off en masse, an eight-day barrage of fire. In his memoir, veteran E.B. Sledge described crossing the airfield as “a veritable shower of deadly metal” and “the worst combat experience I had during the entire war.”

We biked unencumbered, and climbed the ridge by staircase—a precarious staircase, with wobbling handrails and few missing stairs, but no one was complaining. The aerial views were humbling: on one side, a vast turquoise ocean flecked with Palau’s signature Rock Islands; on the other, an empty battlefield with an airstrip in the shape of a giant gray cross. A tombstone just over the hill from Paradise.

“As I looked at the stains on the coral,” Sledge wrote, “I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how ‘gallant’ it is for a man to ‘shed his blood for his country,’ and ‘to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,’ and so on. The words seemed ridiculous. Only the flies benefited.”

By day’s end, the heat and the jungle and history of Peleliu had had its way with us. We were drenched with sweat, caked in mud, scraped and sunburned. We pedaled past a clearing filled with whooping laughter, and we followed that laughter to the Ngermelt Swimming Hole, a fifteen-foot-deep natural sinkhole fed by a tunnel to the sea. A few local families were swimming off the heat, and we gratefully peeled off our layers and jumped in after them, filling the jungle with more whooping and hollering, lucky-to-be-alive sounds, human cannonballs, rocketing handsprings off the ledge.

~ ~ ~

On Sunday morning, I sat alone on Purple Beach in front of our rented cabin, trying to meditate, be in the present, find some peace. But what did that mean on Peleliu? We’re fed time and history in order, a chronology of minutes and years stacked neatly in sequence. On Peleliu, someone had come along and shuffled the deck.

A breeze rustled the palm leaves to clacking. A baby wailed inside a nearby house, a husk of a place made in the common island style of clapboard and corrugated metal. Men worked, even on a Sunday, mending stairs and light fixtures. They traded words in Palauan, a language whose glottal stops and throaty consonants eluded me. But the tone, the speed of the exchange, the passage of tools and the words we use when we work, put our bodies on the line together—it was so familiar that for a moment I believed I understood it.

And church was over—the bells and choral hymns had drifted from the evangelical church across the street over breakfast—but I could still hear the children singing in their non-native English, “Father Abraham” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” imported Christian songs I knew by heart but couldn’t remember learning.

And the bodies of the ones who died on these beaches are gone—all of those angry, sad, brave, sweet, afraid boys, who must have imagined beautiful wives in their futures, heroic acts, college, maybe, and Christmas, when they would take their mothers to church, light candles and sing inside a holy space. But instead they landed on this stretch of beautiful beach, another acting troupe playing dead on a stage of the Pacific theater, lying face down in the sand with a blistering sun at their backs and grenades flying overhead like synchronized fish out of water. I saw my grandfather, who couldn’t speak about the war without crying—his blue eyes misting as his brain left us for a world of memory—so he didn’t talk about it, didn’t want to go there, until it was his turn to die in old age, and he did pull-ups on the bar above his hospital bed, still, in his final hours, wringing what he could from his physical body, knowing the grace and the guilt of living when so many boys died far from home.

At a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu, two veteran survivors, Kiyokazu Tsuchida, 94, and William Darling, 89, once enemies, embraced one another like brothers. They promised to pass their stories of trauma to their grandchildren, so that future generations might escape their fate. “It was a horrible war,” Tsuchida said. “We must never wage war again.”

~ ~ ~

If these roads have a story to tell, then, let it be one of regeneration, of renewal. By now, the land has grown itself a new green jungle skin and wears the artifacts of war like scars. Bomb casings, torpedoes, guns and grenades lie camouflaged beneath grass and vine. Landing craft rest at odd angles in improbable places, between two houses, or roadside among the banana trees. Canons and burly A-1 tanks have rusted to a halt like old farm implements, wagon wheels and tractor parts we used to climb in the fields at home. The tanks are filled to overflowing now with bright green ferns—postmodern planters sprouting blooms from bullet holes. You could mistake overgrown bunkers for abrupt mesas and buttes on the horizon, but if you look closely, you see those hillocks have doors.

During the last big typhoon, the fortified caves served as inland shelter for the people of Peleliu—Andy Johns and the Cleared Ground Demining Crew among them. They gathered flashlights and as much food and water as they could carry, and for fourteen hours, camped among the bats and spiders, dripping stalactites, bomb casings and bones, living as the soldiers lived, singing songs together in the dark.

Soon, I’ll be on the State Boat, watching Peleliu shrink on the horizon. The cases of Budweiser beer will have been replaced by hefty quantities of Peleliu’s own brand of bud, a source of pride among Palauans (like Christianity, English, and Budweiser, marijuana is non-native, a Western import introduced, I’m told, by Peace Corps volunteers to Micronesia in the late 1960s). Locals will stand on shore, as the custom goes, waving until we’ve receded from view.

But for now, I’m still kneeling in the sand on Peleliu, the skins of my knees sore with the imprint of coral, my fists full of shells. I feel a sudden sharp pain, an attack on the flesh of my left palm, and open my fist to see a hermit crab fighting for survival. My other palm, too, is filled with living things. A whole world in my hands. Suddenly, I am standing on another shoreline, in another decade, when I was a girl and my sister taught me to sing songs to the lifeless periwinkle shells, to watch their bodies rise up from their dark caves toward the sun.

Good and evil aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be, and this story, like any war story, has no hero. Just the words of the old men, the survivors who remain. And the children’s choir on Sunday, maybe, if their voices can carry this far down the coral road.

Anna Vodicka‘s essays have appeared in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including AFAR, Brevity, Guernica, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, Longreads, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency,  Shenandoah, and Wanderlust. Her stories have been anthologized in Lonely Planet’s An Innocent Abroad and Capstone Press’s Love & Profanity, and have won The Missouri Review audio competition for prose, Best American Essays notables, and Pushcart Prize Special Mention. In 2015, she was a Vermont Studio Center fellow.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: Bubble-Up

March 17th, 2017

By Katherine Jamieson

A tropical love story in Guyana.

The one-room schoolhouse rang with the din of teenage girls’ voices in the humid afternoon air. Someone had erased the sentences with their adjectives and nouns underlined from the black wooden slab we used for a chalkboard and scrawled out a rough schedule for the upcoming concert: Indranie—Chutney dance; Onica—I Believe I Can Fly; Wanda—Modeling. Scratchy dub music played on the school’s dinged up tape deck, and a few girls gyrated their hips seductively to the deep bass line while the others sat around languidly braiding each other’s hair.

Deborah, the school prefect and informal director of the concert, was complaining to me. “Miss, dem first year girls actin’ stupidy, talking nuff nonsense. Miss, we must tell dem speak properly, and learn they lines, right, Miss?”

“Yes, yes, Deborah, please help them learn their lines,” I said fanning myself with some loose papers. I was sitting at one of the student desks, trying to imagine how the chaos in front of me would turn into a performance in the next six weeks, when we heard thumping sounds on the staircase. Mayon, a short, soft-spoken girl popped her head into the dim interior of the room.

“Miss, mail come for you, Miss,” she said under her breath. Happy for an excuse to escape, I followed her out into the blinding sunlight and down the open-air stairs to the first floor of the YWCA building. The cement walled office was a cool refuge from the heat of the upstairs.

How dem girls doin’?” asked Amanda, the bookkeeper, smiling knowingly as she glanced up from her handwritten ledger.

“Oh, you know, we tryin’,” I said and she laughed at my use of the noncommittal Creolese expression. A radio played softly behind her, the baritone announcer of “Voice of Guyana” announcing that water shortages would continue indefinitely.

A white envelope sat on a pile of student papers on my desk. My name and address were handwritten in blue ink with a wavy print, the work of a pen gripped between arthritic fingers. Ministry secretary, I thought. I got my official correspondence at work, the invitations to meetings with the many committees, groups and coalitions of the development world.

But flattening the page against my scarred wooden desk I could see that it was not the carbon-blue tinged product of a typewriter. In my hands was the crisp work of a computer printer, as rare in Guyana as a piece of good chocolate or a glass of wine.

Dear Katherine,
I had the pleasure of meeting you recently. I know you work at the YWCA. I find you very attractive and the only reason I am writing to you instead of approaching you in person is because I am a woman. I wish I could see your face when you react to the last sentence. This is the first time I am doing this and I am still very unsure that I will post this letter. I am not writing to you because I assume you are so inclined, but because it’s the only way I can know if you’re interested. I am Guyanese and you should know by now how our society reacts to people whose tastes are not of the norm.

Does the fact that a woman finds you attractive repulse and disgust you, or are you indifferent to this attraction? Does it leave you cold or is there a bit of interest on your part? If this letter repel and offend you I apologize and suggest you stop reading now and destroy this letter. If it leave you cold and indifferent then please forgive me for approaching you in the first place. Like I said it’s the only way I could know. If there is a bit of interest on your part then the next step is how can I know without you knowing who I am. It should be obvious that I will not give my real name or address to you.

Please do not show this letter to anyone with the intention of finding out who I am so that you can draw me out and humiliate me. I am not a ‘nut-case’ as you Americans say. I have no intention of stalking you, threatening you or making your life miserable in any way. I just want to know if you are interested, and if you are, how can we get to know each other better. If you are interested please send a letter with one word in it, either YES or MAYBE. If you are not, the letter should say NO. Send it to ‘Murray’ at post office box 10880. If I don’t hear from you I will take it that’s a NO. Please believe me when I say I have no intention of trying to destroy your life here in Guyana.


My first thought was that the letter was a trick played by another volunteer. People were known to get a little punchy out at their rural worksites. But the author had brought in vestiges of British English (“post this letter”), and dropped the “s”s on their verbs, as in Creolese, the Guyanese spoken dialect, a subtle but sure sign it was from a Guyanese. There was also urgency in the tone, which made me think Murray, whoever she was, was serious.

“Good news ya get?” asked Amanda. I looked up from the letter to her wide brown eyes, and warm, easy smile. She was a little older than I was, in her mid-20s, and, like most Guyanese she loved a good joke. Could she be Murray? But there was nothing sly or coy about her question, and she seemed quite happy with the cricket player she’d recently been going dancing with every weekend. It seemed unlikely.

“Just one of the Board ladies complaining about the girls again,” I said, tucking the letter back into its envelope and sliding it into my bag. “You know how they like talk.” Amanda, no fan of the middle-aged, upper-class women who decided her meager salary, gave me a knowing look.
“They best mind their own,” she said, shaking her head.

Back upstairs I rejoined the girls who were practicing a vaguely pornographic dance routine to the song Me Wan Dugga Dugga. I was still thinking about the letter. Murray? What kind of Guyanese woman uses “Murray”—a decidedly un-sexy and un-Guyanese name—for a pseudonym?

I am not writing to you because I assume you are so inclined, but because it’s the only way I can know if you’re interested. Such a delicate work: inclined. The Guyanese I knew were far more irreverent about sex, and didn’t dance around the topic. But this was a unique situation and the author clearly had a great deal to lose. She was choosing her words carefully.

I am Guyanese and you should know by now how our society reacts to people whose tastes are not of the norm. Of course, she had to know that this wasn’t only the case in Guyana. But what was most unnerving was that Murray, whoever she was, had guessed right about me.

“Y’alright, Miss?” Deborah asked. I studied her open face looking for signs that she might know why I was distracted. Murray? But my students, Deborah included, were largely guileless, much more likely to blurt out a secret attraction than compose a letter and deliver it to my desk. Every year a few of them filled out school enrollment forms and under the category of “Sex” marked “Yes.”

“I’m all right. You know, Guyana hot.” I had found this to be a great catchall excuse. In truth, I did feel unbearably hot in that moment.

“Yes, Miss, Guyana hot!” Deborah agreed, nodding vigorously. “Ya must sip a drink with ice in the afternoon, Miss, to keep the blood down from ya face.” My students loved to give their foreign teacher advice about how to survive in the tropics.

“Deborah, I have to leave for the market now. You’ll keep working with the girls on the dances?” The need to leave the stuffy room and the terrible, rough recordings of the dub music was suddenly intense.

“Yes, yes, Miss, no problem, Miss,” she reassured me in her confident Prefect voice. Seeing my distracted look she added, “Don’ take it on, Miss! The Y-teens concert gon’ be something’, Miss. Nobody ehn’t gon’ forget it for long time!”

Like so many of my projects at the YWCA, the Y-teens concert had started off innocently enough. The girls signed on with their typical manic enthusiasm for anything non-academic, and the Headmistress, Mrs. Corlette, agreed that it would be good for them to do something that made them feel like they were attending a “regular” school. The May Rodrigues (a Portuguese name pronounced “Rodreegz”) Vocational Training Center was for “Early School-Leavers,” the Guyanese euphemism for high school dropouts. Most of our students had had limited education and many couldn’t read beyond an elementary level. The school was charged with teaching them basic skills and a trade before they were released into the world of early adulthood, which generally meant pregnancy.

I had been working as a “Youth Development” volunteer at the YWCA of Georgetown for less than a year, and I had accomplished little, failing even to define the basic outline of my job. Before school began it had been deadly quiet. The director, a kind but distracted woman, seemed rather startled when I showed up for work each day in the professional-tropical outfits I’d bought in the States. Without any clear direction, I took on various projects with gusto: cataloguing the library of dusty, donated books; attending Ministry of Youth meetings. Still, most of my early days were spent sitting at my desk in the office, watching the director shuffle papers and waiting until I could head to the market to shop for dinner.

The girls began to trickle in around July, meeting in the director’s small office accompanied by their young-looking mothers and often a sibling or two in tow. They were silent for the most part, chastened, sitting up straight in their best, pressed church clothes. An air of desperation hovered over these admission meetings, a sense of last resort. Having missed out on more formal education, the girls were there to learn a trade—strawcraft, crochet, food and nutrition, typing—which their families hoped would enable them to earn an income.

By September, the trickle was a torrent. Gone were the demure girls of those early interviews, and in their place was a jostling mass of young teenagers tromping up the rickety wooden steps “skinning teeth,” teasing each other, and flirting with the occasional boy who stumbled into the building. The schoolroom could barely contain them, and chairs, notebooks, pencils and teachers were always in short supply. Down in the office we braced ourselves for the morning onrush of almost a hundred girls fresh off the speeding minibuses from poor neighborhoods all over Georgetown: Albouystown, La Penitence, South Ruimveldt, Tiger Bay.

It didn’t take long for the girls to find me. While just weeks before I had been at loose ends, now I found myself flooded with interest, curiosity, demand. “Miss, Miss!” came the cry as I walked through the hallways, followed quickly by a girl weaving her thin arm through mine, making an urgent request for something: a favor, a treat, a little bit of money. The girls wanted my friendship, but they also saw that I could provide things their teachers couldn’t, or weren’t willing to. I was only a few years old, and they assumed I was from “New Yawrk,” the city they believed encompassed the whole of the United States, which they knew from soap operas, movies and luxuriant Red Lobster commercials on the pirated TV stations. Mostly, I was just different from anyone else they had ever met, and this made them think I could give them what they needed, even when I couldn’t.

The girls drove the energy of the Y, pushing against its conservative, “Christian,” origins, and giving it a reason to exist beyond a staid female social club (husbands complained the letters “YWCA” stood for “Your Wife Constantly Away”). In truth, ours was only a stopgap, makeshift program. The two full-time teachers in their 60s could not make up for all the failings of the Guyanese educational system, or the years of instruction the girls had missed because they were sick or caring for siblings. There were never enough books or pens or notebooks; the girls sat around for hours, sometimes whole days, copying notes or crocheting doilies, braiding each other’s hair or filing their nails. Still, every morning they arrived dressed in their freshly pressed uniforms: white, short-sleeved, collared shirts with a patch of the school’s crest sewn above the breast pocket. Like me, they were dressed and ready and young, but ready for what? We all seemed to be waiting for an answer.

My job was to bring “youth development” to this school, a vague mandate that included teaching “life skills” like “time management,” “goal-setting,” and other concepts that made no sense in Guyanese culture. At 22, I too fell under this category of “youth,” clumped right in with my students at the age of potential, vibrancy, leadership. The problem was that none of us knew how to tap this effectively; I, like they, felt stultified and somehow misunderstood. Eventually, I gave up trying to teach the curriculum that had been thrust on me and looked for other ways to engage the bristling hum of the girls’ pent-up energy and desires. And so, the idea for the concert was born.

“Eh, eh, dese gals gon’ drive me pressure up again!” Mrs. Corlette said as I entered the school office, slamming her hands down so hard on the plastic, floral desk cover that a red pencil dropped to the floor. The Headmistress was in her 50s, short and stout with Jeri-curls that shook seismically when she was angry. “Good morning, Miss Katrin. How ya do?” she asked, as she bent down to pick it up.

“Fine, Mrs. Corlette. You wanted me?” For a moment I wondered if Mrs. Corlette—Verley was her first name—was the author of the anonymous letter. Could Verley be Murray? The thought was ridiculous. Instead of attraction, Mrs. Corlette often seemed to be irritated with my exuberance and the extra work that fell to her when I wasn’t able to follow through on all my big plans.
“Yes, yes, gal, sit down,” she said, and I pulled up a wooden chair opposite her. The school office was so narrow that only her desk, a student’s desk and a few chairs could fit in the room. Sunlight filtered in through the wooden boards nailed over the open-air windows, and outside we could hear the nursery school children singing from the yard: There’s a brown girl in the ring, la, la, la, la!

The Headmistress wet a handkerchief with purple liquid from a bottle on the desk and began to daub her forehead. “I want to hear about this concert for Y-Teens. Dese gals tellin’ me all sorts of tings, and you know how dey like mek story,” she said. She fixed me with her strong, intelligent gaze and I squirmed against the hard wooden chair.

“Well, I know we have a lot of work left to do, but the concert’s not for a few weeks…” I began nervously detailing my conversations with the DJs and soda vendors, and describing, as best I could, the ever-shifting menu of performances the girls were planning. As I spoke, she took careful notes in her precise, floral script. In the few months since she had taken over the administration of the school, Mrs. Corlette had established the first ever schedule of classes. She had a deep, generous laugh, but in the downstairs office we often heard her thundering strides through the ceiling, her usually resonant tone turned nasal when she yelled. Outside the classroom she was the picture of composure. The girls lowered their eyes and quieted when they saw her.

The Headmistress had sensed, correctly, that I was in over my head with the concert. My students’ lives were dominated by the unending drudgery of caring for younger siblings, cooking and cleaning, with breaks only for school and church. Without realizing it, I had unwittingly put in motion the major social event of their year, perhaps of their young lives. This night was their opportunity to wear what the Headmistress called “naked skin clothes,” and impress the boys who they otherwise never got to see. All my efforts to tone it down had been firmly rejected. “No, Miss,” they explained patiently. “For bubble-up you must have…,” and then they would list various non-negotiable standards: a full sound system, printed tickets, a photographer, a raffle and drinks and food to sell. The task of organizing all of this had fallen on me, and I was wandering in a wilderness of Guyanese teenage party-planning, barely keeping it all together.

Mrs. Corlette sighed when I finished. “Ok, Katrin. Ya must just tell me if ya need help.” Then she added, “We have to watch dese girls, ya know. We must careful none gon’ to the Sea Wall afterwards!” She laughed at the reference to an infamous spot where young couples met. Part of the unspoken job of the school was to keep our students from getting pregnant before they graduated. Every afternoon, boys would appear on their bikes and circle the building in long, lazy arcs. The teachers watched these boys and they watched the girls who they came to visit. I had only a vague idea of the “wickedness” they feared: girls sleeping with minibus drivers for free rides; furtive meetings in the stretches of farmland behind the city neighborhoods. We were supposed to stop this, to mold the girls to a vision of propriety from a past Guyanese generation. Fortunately, no one knew quite how ill-suited I was for the job.

As I was gathering up my notes to leave, Mrs. Corlette stopped me. “Tell me more about dis Youth Challenge project. Dese girls know they must be walking in the jungle with snakes, carry heavy bags, no make-up and ears rings?” She raised her thin eyebrows skeptically.

In addition to the concert, I was also trying to get some of my students to be a part of Youth Challenge, an international organization that brings young Guyanese, Canadians and Australians into the Interior of the country to do service projects. The vast majority of Guyana is uncharted wilderness—jungles, savannahs, mountains and rivers—and this was the first group I’d heard about that gave young people a chance to explore their own country.

Initially a group of girls had shown some interest, so I started helping them raise money for the trip. Then, one by one they began dropping out. “Miss, me mudda say no, Miss,” they told me, without further explanation. The sudden change of heart confused me, until the women in the front office set me straight.

“You know, Katrin,” Amanda told me, shaking her head. “Malaria is serious business.” Maylene chimed in that “tigers” roamed in the Interior, and then they both laughed that “jumbies”, or ghosts, might come when you spend a night in the jungle. They informed me that most Guyanese avoid the Interior at all costs for these real and imagined dangers. Meanwhile I had been blithely promoting the wonders of the traveling there, never realizing how engrained the distrust of this region is, or how I would be looked upon for encouraging its exploration.

“We still have a few girls interested, Mrs. Corlette. The Director, Ardis, and I are meeting about it today,” I told her.

“The Rasta girl?” she asked.

“She’s not Rasta, but yes, the one with locks. She’s a student at the University of Guyana, and she’s traveled all over throughout the Interior, in the jungles and mountains. She says it’s quite safe, really.”

“Ok, Katrin,” she said as she turned back to the papers on her desk. “Ya must know what you’re doing,” she added, her tone implying just the opposite.

When Ardis came later that day I was meeting with some of the girls about the concert and I had to ask her to wait.

But the girls were too distracted by my visitor to continue. “Who your nice friend, Miss? Me like she hair,” my student Abiola said reverently, reaching over to touch Ardis’ ringlets.

“Abiola, I’m not sure Miss Sanmoogan wants…” I started, but Ardis waved me off.

“Ya Rasta?” the girl asked, pulling the tight curl to its surprising full length. Ardis laughed.

“No, I just don’t relax my hair. I twist it. See?” She separated a few strands and then wound them back together, one over the other, until the curl popped back into place.

“It look nice, Miss,” Abiola said, trying it with her own hair.

“Sorry about that,” I said, sitting down next to her after the girls had left.

“All these students must keep you busy.”

“Oh yeah. You seem comfortable with them,” I said. “Have you done a lot of teaching?”

“Not really. I just grew up with a lot of girls like this, over in Hadfield.” Hadfield was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Georgetown.

“Really?” I said, and then regretted it. I had assumed from her standard English and high position at Youth Challenge that she’d come from a well-off family. But she didn’t seem to be offended.

“Most of the Youth Challenge participants we work with are from Georgetown’s top high schools,” she said. “I’ve been trying to get more girls like these interested for a while.”

“Well, about that, we’ve had a lot of drop-outs since we last talked. The girls are telling me that their parents won’t let them go,” I said apologetically.

“Yeah, Guyanese don’t like risk too much, you know?” she laughed. “The Interior can be dangerous, of course, but only if you don’t know what you’re doing. We’ve been going there for years,” she said. She reassured me that even if only a couple of girls from the Y ended up on the trip, she’d be happy. “I’d like to organize something bigger for them too,” she suggested. “Would you be open to taking a camping trip beforehand to give them a little practice living outdoors?”

“I think they’d love it,” I said. “But I can’t do anything until this concert is over in May.”

“Oh right, the big concert they’re all talking about. I’d like to come. Can I buy tickets?”

“Seriously? It’s going to be a madhouse. I can barely keep track of who’s performing, and I’m beginning to think it’s all just a big excuse for them to meet up with boys.” Ardis laughed.

“I’m sure that’s true, but it still sounds like fun. My secondary school used to do these kinds of concerts every month.”

“Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” I said, smiling.

“You can’t scare me off,” she said. “Now how much are the tickets?”

A few weeks had passed since I’d found Murray’s letter on my desk, and I still had no idea who’d written it. I imagined that it must have come from a Guyanese woman I’d met briefly, perhaps at a party or through another volunteer. But when I thought about it no one came to mind. I’d also ruled out all the women I met through the Y. Maylene in the office was both very Pentecostal Christian and devoted to her husband. The mothers of my students were too burdened to be seeking out new romantic liaisons, and the Board members were all decidedly stodgy and straight.

Early on, it had occurred to me that Ardis may have been the letter-writer, but I quickly ruled her out. She was very friendly and generous with her time, but also a bit formal. There was a quiet privacy about her, and I sensed that she had only a small, select group of friends. An anonymous love letter seemed too obvious, too common for her. Then there was the fact of her beauty. She was naturally striking, though she wore no makeup and little jewelry. After one of our meetings she’d run into a very handsome black man she knew, and there seemed to be chemistry between them. I imagined she must have many potential lovers, if she was not involved with someone already.

I hadn’t responded to the letter because it seemed too dicey to reveal my sexuality to someone I didn’t know. Please do not show this letter to anyone with the intention of finding out who I am so that you can draw me out and humiliate me. Murray’s words summed up my own fears. I was curious, but it didn’t seem worth the risk if I had no idea if the person on the other end could be trusted.

Although I’d had a few girlfriends toward the end of college, I’d been dating a man named Todd almost since the beginning of my time in Guyana. We’d gotten together early on when we were set up with neighboring homestay families, but now we lived a few hours away by bus and seeing each other was more of a challenge. I’d thought about breaking things off with him, but Guyana was a hard place to live and the idea of being single here didn’t appeal to either of us. Still, we were bickering more often when we saw each other; I was feeling restless though I wasn’t ready to admit it to him or myself.

Three days before the concert, Todd called to say he wanted to come. Because I’d been so busy at school, I hadn’t gone to visit him in a few weeks. The letter lay in the top drawer of my dresser, but I’d never gotten around to telling him about it.

“You do know it’s going to be loud and hot?” I asked him. “Really hot.”

“I just want to see you. How’s it going?” I could barely hear his voice over the crackly line. Todd lived in a small town along the highway and there was no phone service in his house, so he was calling from the health clinic next door. I was sitting on the floor of my house in blackout, with invisible mosquitoes buzzing around in the darkness. Candle flames flickered high in the corners, furniture throwing long shadows across the shiny, wooden floor.

“I’m in one of the acts now. You can’t watch,” I said. I’d been teaching some of the girls sign language, but they didn’t want to perform alone, so I’d agreed to join them.

“Of course not. Though, it can’t be worse than when you read the poem at the evening student graduation,” he chuckled. I cringed. Todd and I had worked at the Y together when we’d first come to Guyana, before we’d gotten our full-time job placements. I’d given an impassioned reading of a poem by a Guyanese author, which was met with blank looks and a smattering of awkward applause.

“You’ll probably end up selling drinks and moving a lot of heavy stuff around,” I said.

“You can’t talk me out of this. If I take another bath in the Atlantic, I’m going to lose my shit.” There was a “brown-out,” an extended period of blackout, in Todd’s area, and he hadn’t had electricity or running water for several months. Showers at my apartment were another major incentive for him to visit these days.

“How’s the concert going, anyway?”

“I’m just hoping no one gets pregnant afterward.”

“Good luck,” he said, laughing.

We got to the school early on the day of the concert, and Todd and I loaded blocks of ice into metal basins, resting the bright sodas on top where they glowed like costume jewelry. Some wiry teenage boys arrived wearing baggy pants and gold chains so heavy they seemed to strain their thin necks. Where we should put dis, Miss? they asked, wheeling in twelve enormous speakers. The scarred wooden floor looked vulnerable under the hundreds of pounds of equipment, even before the DJ started testing the system and the room began to shake. Todd shot me a look.

“You said you wanted to come….”

“I know,” he said. “Let’s just get through this and get a drink.”

“Hello, Miss!” my students called, running up to me smelling of heavy perfume. Excitement mixed with roiling hormones had brought them to a fever pitch. At the school they were not even allowed to wear ribbons, but tonight their hair had been straightened and curled, set into complex configurations that swept up off their heads or flattened against their faces in spikes. They wore metallic bellbottoms and rhinestone encrusted halter-tops; spandex dresses with ribbing; flowing silk saris. Their lips sparkled with magenta glitter. A few of them had fake eyelashes.

“I feel underdressed,” I whispered to Todd.

“You mean overdressed?” he said, pointing to Deborah who had showed up in a clear plastic dress over nylon shorts and a bikini top.

Ardis and her friend, a British development worker, arrived about half an hour early. I was busy selling drinks so I didn’t see them at first, but she waved from the doorway as they went into the classroom. I waved back, as I made change for one of my students.

“Who was that?” Todd asked.

“Oh, that’s Ardis,” I said. “The one I was telling you about who takes kids into the Interior.”
“Could she be more beautiful?” he said, glancing inside as she took her seat.

I nodded, pushing the sodas deeper into the basin of melted ice as the Headmistress made her regal entrance. She was wearing more make-up herself, and had on a stylish, low-cut blouse.

“Everyting all right, Miss Katrin?she asked, laughing her deep belly laugh and grasping my upper arms in her strong hands. “When ya come Guyana, bet you didn’t expect dis!” she said, clapping her hand on my back.

“I’ll just be glad when it’s over, Mrs. Corlette,” I said, and she laughed again.

Right before the show, I pushed my way through crowds of girls and parents to find Ardis and thank her for coming. “I’m sure there are other things you’d rather be doing on a Saturday night,” I said.

“No, this is great,” she said speaking loudly so I could hear her over the music. “It brings it all back.”

“I’ll be ready for some quiet nights in the jungle after this,” I said.

“Me too!” she said.

After some negotiation with the DJs to lower the music to a less painful level, the concert finally began. Deborah and another girl were the informal MCs, introducing the acts. Most involved dancing with the girls imitating the popular Soca performers they saw on TV, winding their hips in fast, rhythmic gyrations. A few of the Indian girls danced to music from popular Indian movies, wearing full saris and gold jewelry around their necks and ankles.

“Modeling” consisted of girls stalking across the room and giving provocative looks to the audience over their shoulders. A few of my students sang popular R & B songs in surprisingly clear and rich voices, while others recited poems in memorized monotones. We didn’t have enough chairs, and many of the girls and the boys they’d invited stood at the sides and back of the room, singing and sometimes dancing along with the performers.

During the concert, I moved between the main performance room and the balcony, where Todd was still selling our now dwindling supply of drinks. He pulled me on to his lap, and offered me a red soda. “What time is it? Hasn’t this been going on for a few hours?” he asked.

“It’s only 7:00 now, and we’ve still got about half the acts to go,” I said, pushing the damp hair away from his forehead. “You can back to my place if you want and I’ll meet you there.” He shook his head.

“No, I wouldn’t miss seeing you up there,” he said, smiling.

Only as I took the stage after a raucous rendition of a dub hit, did it occur to me how completely out of place my act was with the whole concert. All night long the wooden planks had been creaking under the thunderous dancing, the crowd exploding with laughter and cheers. It was hard to distinguish between performers and guests; the more popular the act, the closer the audience came to rushing the stage.

In contrast, I’d taught my students to perform to a gospel song in sign language with me. After all the overtly sexual songs and dances, I’d be introducing the first religious music of the evening. I blushed a little as we began, realizing that once again my act was completely out of step with the culture around me.

Someone asked the question
Why do we sing?
When we lift our hands to Jesus,
What do we really mean?

Only one of my students, a tough-looking girl named Carol, had agreed to do the performance with me, and we signed together in unison. I looked out over the crowd of my students and their families, the Headmistress, and Ardis. The audience was not thumping or calling out, but they were listening. Our performance seemed to have shocked them into silence. All eyes in the room were on us.

Someone may be wondering
When we sing our song
At times we may be crying
And nothings even wrong

Ardis’ face stood out, her long neck and hair distinguishing her from the crowd, and I smiled at her. Later she would ask me why I had worn so much eye shadow that evening, though I hadn’t been wearing any makeup at all. Only when I looked at a picture of myself on stage did I realize that the light was shining on the reflective coating of my glasses and had tinted my eyelids bright pastel pink and purple. The rest of the audience must have noticed it also, and I can only imagine how strange I looked to them: violet eyelids, pink skin, singing silently with my arms and hands.

Todd had come in from the balcony now and was standing in the shadows at the back of the room. He looked wilted from the heat, and bemused by my oddball act. Mostly he looked ready to go home. The song played on, building to its finale:

And when the song is over
We’ve all said
In your heart just keep on singing
And the song will never end

Carol and I continued, our fingers and hands moving quickly and finally dropping our arms to our sides. Then the audience did as we had taught them in the beginning: they applauded as a deaf audience would, shaking their hands in the air, fingers loose. I looked out at all the brown and black and yellow hands waving at us, at Will’s white hands, and Ardis’ thin light brown hands. It was beautiful and strange to be appreciated in this subtle way on this loud night, in this loud country. For a moment, I heard the silence completely, and I saw how I had created it.

It felt as if all the grime of Georgetown was being seared away as the bus hurtled to our campsite the next week. The sunset was fierce that evening. Violet and magenta streaks shot from a line of palm trees in the distance, and once we reached the highway I sensed a new Guyana altogether. Gone were the piles of trash and blocky buildings, the blaring music and crowds. Sugar cane and rice fields bordered the initial stretch of asphalt, but as we moved further toward the Interior, cultivation stopped and the houses petered out. Then it was green, green for miles, green as far as any of us could see.

It was getting dark by the time we arrived, so we set a fire in the pit and cooked chicken and rice. The girls were excited and talkative, full of questions about camping trips Ardis had taken in the past. She and I had originally planned to sleep in the spare, military barracks with the girls so we wouldn’t have to pitch a tent. It was a clear night, though, so Ardis suggested we hang up our hammocks and sleep outside on the porch where it was cooler.

I was trying to arrange my sleeping bag and sheets in the hammock when she said, “Do you want some?” She was holding a bottle of cream liqueur.

“I’d love some, as long as the girls don’t find out,” I said.

“Of course,” she said. “We’ll be discreet.” She was already pouring the thick, tan liquid into the plastic mugs we had used for dinner.

“This stuff is my favorite,” she said. “Have you tried it?”

“A few times,” I said taking the mug. “Oh, wow, that’s amazing. Like an alcoholic milkshake.”

It was a mellow night, the heat tempered by the foliage. Chirps and croaks erupted from the nearby jungle. We picked up our conversation from our weekly meetings, and she told me about her thesis project, a study of male prostitution in Georgetown. She had been interviewing Guyanese drag queens for the last few months with a group of her classmates. As we talked, I could see her small profile, her mouth opened wide when she laughed, her high cheekbones shadowed in the dim moonlight. The rest of her body was hidden in her sleeping bag, deep in the low-hanging hammock.

“They’re out there every night, and there are always john’s for them. Married guys, of course,” she said. The drag queens were beat up often, either by their customers or boys who went after them at night just for fun. With the rate of HIV rising rapidly, they were most likely already positive or soon would be. “It’s a pretty impossible life, being a transsexual in Guyana,” she told me.

I felt warm and light from the liqueur and the easy conversation between us. There didn’t seem to be any risk in telling her now. “You know, I just got something from a woman,” I said, pausing. “Who’s interested in me.” Ardis raised her eyebrows. I told her about the letter.

“Wow,” she said when I finished. “So you have no idea who wrote it?”

“Nope. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t figure out who it could have been.”

“Are you going to respond?” she asked, shifting in her sleeping bag.

“No, it’s too much of a risk to write back. It feels like someone is trying to get me to admit something, and I don’t think it’s safe.” The tone of our conversation had dropped. “It’s amazing what gay people have to go through here, keeping everything secret. Not that it’s so much better in the States.”

“Yeah,” she said softly lying back. I could see the moonlight reflecting on her fine skin, her hair bunched in curly masses around her ears. Her hammock swung softly with the weight and motion of her body. We talked for a while afterwards, but it was getting late. Soon after, we were asleep.

The next day my students accused us of being witches, staying up all night cackling and keeping them awake. Even though we had had only a few hours of sleep, I had plenty of energy all day to run the seminars. The rest of the weekend we spent teaching and cooking with the girls, and chasing after turquoise butterflies as we hiked through the rainforest.

I had brought a camera and the girls begged me to take pictures of them, hanging off the tree house and hugging each other on the stairs. But Ardis ran away whenever I pointed the camera. It was just a joke at first, but as the weekend went on I realized how much I did want a picture of her. To remember the weekend, I thought to myself.

Finally I took a photo of her under an outdoor canopy. The girls are posing behind her, smiling at me, their hair still damp from the rain that had been falling all day. Ardis is lying down, her head resting against a wooden pole. Her head is tilted, her face slightly out of focus, her hair a blurry mass of curls. She is looking to the left, and I cannot tell if she was aware she is in the frame. I took the picture anyway. Against her will or not, I wasn’t sure.

A few days later Ardis called me at home.

“Hey,” I said, “how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. I was wondering if you have a second to talk.”

We spoke about the weekend for a few minutes, then she broke in, her voice lower and more serious than I’d ever heard it. “There’s something else I need tell you. I haven’t been honest and I don’t feel right about it,” she said. She paused. My stomach tightened. “I sent you that letter.”

For a moment, I didn’t know which letter she meant, and then I did. My heart started to beat quickly. I took a few deep breaths, but not loud enough so she could hear them. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you when you brought it up,” she said, “I just didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t think I’d ever hear back from you.” She sounded embarrassed and a little sad. But there was no regret in her voice, and that was what I was listening for.

I took a breath. “It’s Ok,” I said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you too.” I didn’t know what to say now. “Do you want to have lunch tomorrow to talk about it more?”

She paused. Then she laughed a little, nervously. Then I laughed, nervously. “Really, this is fine with you?” she asked again.

“Really,” I said, “Fine.”

Katherine Jamieson is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program who has been published in multiple volumes of The Best Women’s Travel Writing and The Best Travel Writing. This story won the Grand Prize Silver in the Eleventh Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Story of the Year.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: Jordan’s Bull

March 1st, 2017

By James Michael Dorsey

A magical day in Mali.

Hippos surfaced with wiggling ears as the boat man poled our dhow past the submerged herd. We were both tense, expecting a bluff charge, while only feet away white pelicans with long golden beaks floated in the shallows casually scooping minnows in their great fleshy pouches. On the opposite shore the grass huts of the Fulani glowed like fiery tumbleweeds in the hazy sunrise as bare-breasted women pounded their dirty wash on river rocks.

At this bend of Mali’s Niger River, the lethargic water resembles dark roasted coffee as it slowly meanders on towards the fabled city of Timbuktu. I was in old spear-and-loincloth Africa to chase the end of an era with my camera.

The Fulani, hereditary nomads of North Africa, had driven over 1,000 head of their cattle onto a small island to graze for a few days and as is their custom, they had surrounded them with their traditional grass huts. Fulani move about like the wind; they and those like them are vanishing from the African continent.

My dhow was piled with bunches of bananas, gifts of a delicacy hard to come by in such a remote place, as I knew from experience that when they saw me coming, the village children would swarm me on the beach, looking for treats.

While passing out the fruit I noticed one little boy sitting by himself, scooping mud from the river. He was fashioning curious animals out of the mud and laying them on a rock in the sand to bake in the sun. They struck me as wonderfully realistic from the hands of one so young. He worked with an intense concentration and the sureness of an instinctive artist that drew me to him. When I approached to tell him how much I liked his animals he did not speak or acknowledge me in any way, so I dropped off a banana, left him to his work, and walked up the bank to the village.

There, in front of a grass hut, I was warmly greeted by the village headman named Able who, noting my interest in the boy, told me his name was Jordan. “Like the river in the Bible,” he said. Able took both my hands in his and held my gaze as if searching for something in my face or demeanor until he finally added as a matter of fact, “He does not speak. He is touched by God.” He then asked me to sit with him and take tea.

While western medicine has un-pronounceable names and diagnoses for various mental states, it has been my experience that in many remote cultures, people like Jordan are often grouped under the title of “Touched by God.” In my own country such a child would probably be on a regimen of medications, therapy, or even confined to a “facility” to alter his behavior, but in rural Africa, people like Jordan are believed to exist on an alternate plane and are considered a liaison to the spirit world. Their condition is accepted as a gift to the village and they are often the people who become shamans or healers commanding both power and respect. In rural Africa there is no mental illness, only spirits, both evil and good.

I drank the obligatory welcome of tea and made small talk as custom demanded but could not take my eyes off the young boy at the waters’ edge. I asked Able if God ever spoke to Jordan or through him and his answer was only an enigmatic smile as he topped off my teacup. I knew that any further questions could only result in a conversation beyond my comprehension because to this man the physical and spirit worlds are intermingled and I am still a long way from being able to claim the same.

With Able’s blessing I wandered into the vast cattle herd to take my photos while clouds of grasshoppers fled my shadow. Men filled calabash gourds with the morning milk, then handed them off to young boys who carried the nectar back to the village. The women were busy ferrying goat skin bags of water to the herders. The air was full of bees swollen with pollen and the panoramic sky emphasized the vastness of the African plain. It was a travelers’ day when the voices of nature became an aria and the only mechanical sound was that of my shutter capturing limitless beauty. Woodsmoke mingled with the stench of a thousand feral longhorns when I felt a slight tug on my pants leg. I looked down just as Jordan slipped his hand into mine. I had not heard him coming and he had not said a word. Together we stood surrounded by baying cattle, taking in the moment. He was eating the banana.

I began to walk slowly and Jordan kept pace, his hand swallowed by my own. As we passed them, people stopped working and stood at an informal attention. I thought at first that they were simply offering a respectful welcome to a visitor but as we continued, I realized that it had nothing to do with me. They had stopped their work to acknowledge Jordan as he passed by, but it was more than that.

Travelers are often captured by a vortex beyond their comprehension. Remote journeys can sometimes be disorienting to the point of the wanderer asking themselves, “What just happened?” For many, attaining such a moment is the very reason for traveling. My reasons are built on a history of such events that always seem to find me while in Africa. It is a land steeped in animism, and marinated in voodoo; a land of myth, legend, and ceremony where there is no horizon between the material and spiritual worlds and, by keeping an open mind I have often found myself treading an edge between the two.

At first the sound was almost imperceptible from the constant breeze pushed along by the river, but it grew in intensity and volume until I could discern a harmonious chant. It was a traditional chant, the likes of which I have heard countless times in Africa, and yet it was its own. Rather than a narration followed by a chorus it was a constant mantra of the entire village emanating from their souls more than their lungs. It was a sound as old as the earth, a sound that held both agony and ecstasy. It was a sound I felt as much as heard. We were surrounded by the entire village, on their feet, chanting.

It was melodious and calming while suggesting an underlying current of power that enveloped me like a net. I floated in the moment, an organic piece of ancient Africa swept along in its mystery and ceremony. I was no longer a visitor but an integral part of the village, and I took in a panorama of the entire scene, hundreds of heads and shoulders interspersed in the vast herd, all turned inwards towards Jordan who still held my hand. His head was now tilted skyward, his eyes were closed, and he showed a tiny smile as he wiped banana from his chin.

Was this happening because the village holy man had left his trance to walk among them, or was I, this rare visitor, just an excuse for a spontaneous celebration? I had no idea what was taking place and I really did not care; I only wanted the moment to continue. Jordan was in another place, or perhaps he had summoned another place to our here and now and something inside at that moment told me he was indeed, touched by God. Whatever was happening was African, and could never be understood by a non-African, and that was enough for me to know. I just let the chant envelope me.

Jordan began to walk, this time leading me by the hand. The people parted as we passed them but continued their grand chorus. Time had slowed, sound intensified, colors glowed with brilliance, and I held the most sublime sense of belonging that has eluded me most times since. I remember herons flying overhead and egrets by the waterside and thinking how the emerald body of a dead cicada was the most brilliant green I had ever seen. The world had become intense. I was in my body but felt out of it being carried along by the wonderful melody. Hours may have passed, but I am sure it was only minutes before I found myself back at Able’s hut.

Jordan let go of my hand and returned to the riverside and his clay animals without ever having said a word. I do not remember the chanting coming to an end but suddenly all I heard was silence, and when I looked about, people were returning to work tending the cattle. I felt elated yet unsure, as if exiting a dream. Able’s face carried a knowing smile that made me wonder if other visitors had had such a day as mine.

It was late afternoon and the golden sky was turning crimson as the African sun submerged into the black water. People became silhouettes as Able walked me to the river’s edge where the boatman waited for my return. We exchanged no words because none were sufficient. Our mutual silence was enough validation that something extraordinary had taken place. As I walked past Jordan he rose and pressed something into my hand, folding my fingers around it with great solemnity. He did not speak and made no eye contact. He simply returned to his place by the water and his clay animals. His gift was small, hard, and cool in my hand and I held it there, not looking at it until we reached the center of the river. It was a tiny clay bull, just like those that had surrounded us all day, Paleolithic in simplicity, pregnant with symbolism.

I did not watch for hippos during our return crossing or notice the ethereal beauty of the West African sunset. I could only stare at the tiny figure in my palm, running my fingers over it and reliving the day in my soul. I did no analysis nor did I yearn for answers. In truth, I often prefer the what-if to what is, and this was one of those times. I wanted only the day as it was, now a memory, but one that I could recall whenever I wished by the tiny clay bull I now held in my hand. Since that day Jordan’s bull has become both talisman and artifact, and perhaps, even a relic.

Later, at a café in Timbuktu, I met two people who had both preceded me to the island. Both had taken notice of the silent boy by the water. They both told me he had not reacted to them in any way and the people had been friendly but had not sung or chanted. I could drive myself crazy with speculation of “Why me?” so I chose to go with “Why not me?”

Whether Jordan was “Touched by God” or simply a mute little boy, he held great face among his people and for his own reasons, took me into an unexplainable afternoon that has affected and elevated my life in the years that followed. I am sure the world is full of Jordans, mostly overlooked or even ignored, walking among us, visible only to those with open minds and hearts.

Maybe all it takes to have the kind of day a traveler prays for is to give a boy a banana.

James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in forty-five countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines’ Hemispheres and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, World & I, and Natural History, plus several African magazines. He is a foreign correspondent for Camerapix International, a travel consultant to Brown + Hudson of London, and a correspondent for the World Explorers Bureau. He is also a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club. His latest book is Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails. His stories have appeared in ten travel anthologies. He is a fifteen-time Solas Awards category winner and a contributor to The Best Travel Writing, Volume 10. This story won the Grand Prize Gold in the Eleventh Annual Solas Awards.

Family Travel Bronze Winner: Bellagio People

February 27th, 2017

By Suzanne Roberts

Getting naked with your new lover’s family.

Your lover’s family doesn’t like that you’re from California, that you’re only half Jewish (and the wrong half), but most of all, that you’re still married. While nobody seems to question your lover’s decision to have an affair with a married woman, everyone wonders about your lack of scruples. When you meet his sister in the lobby of the Bellagio, the first thing she says to you is, “Are you divorced yet?”

You tell her that in California, it takes six months.

“Well, I can’t see what’s taking so long,” she says.

“I’ve moved out. We’re separated. I filed for divorce.”

“But not divorced. I mean, technically, you’re married to someone else.”

But according to your lover’s mother, a prim woman who wears tailored outfits and a healthy dollop of makeup, the family agrees that if he loves you, which he claims that he does, you will be invited on the Annual Family Las Vegas Trip. Even if you are (unfortunately) still married. “We’re very accepting,” she says.

You meet the entire family in Las Vegas, including the grandmother who says, “We’re Bellagio people.”

The women carry enormous suitcases. The father remarks on how small yours is and says to his wife, “Look at that bag! Why can’t you carry a bag that small?”

The mother makes a face that says, Oh please! And when you say, “It’s just a weekend, right?” the mother looks at you like you have personally insulted her and her giant matching Louis Vuitton suitcase and carry-on bag, like you have no real appreciation for the Annual Family Las Vegas Trip.

You will soon find out that the Annual Family Las Vegas Trip is pre-planned to the minute, from drinks and dinner, to shopping excursions (for the ladies) and gambling (for the men), to the rental of the cabana at the pool, and most importantly, the golf (for the men) and spa day (for the ladies). An appointment for a massage has already been made for you. You will wonder if you can go golfing instead, and you will find out that no, you may not.

The women meet in the lady’s lounge, where you are to relax in your fluffy bathrobes and then follow a spa attendant to a room for a one-hour massage. Then you are to meet back at the ladies lounge for a sauna, steam room, or Jacuzzi. Your choice.

The first part goes well enough, most of the ladies flipping through magazines, the older ladies perusing Good Housekeeping or Martha Stewart Living, the younger ones looking at Marie Clare. You have brought along an eighteenth-century Gothic novel, Mathew Lewis’ The Monk.

One of the younger cousins asks you what you’re reading, and you are glad to talk about books, but maybe looking back, you were a little too enthusiastic.

“This is the greatest book,” you say, holding up a cover that features a naked monk being flown across a black sky by the claws of a demon. You should have taken the cousin’s strange smirk as a sign to stop talking, but you are nervous, and when you’re nervous, you talk. A lot.

“It’s about this monk, who everyone admires, but he is full of lust, and he has sex with this woman who turns out to be a demon. He ends up making a pact with the devil, and he unknowingly rapes his sister and kills his mother. All the while, he’s responsible for a pregnant nun being tortured in the catacombs of the dungeon.” You notice the cousin’s face drain of color, so you end your little book summary with “But the nun lives, even though the baby dies… and the monk, well, he gets punished.” You hold up the book with its graphic cover to show her.

You had never thought much about the naked monk on the book’s cover. Until now.

“Sounds…interesting,” she says in that way where the word interesting doesn’t really mean interesting.

“It is. I’m teaching it,” you say, as if that somehow would excuse you from reading something so scandalous.

“You’re teaching that?”

“Uh-huh. In freshman comp.”

“I never read anything like that in college.”

“No,” you say, “I imagine you didn’t.”

The cousin is about to ask you what you mean when you are saved by the attendant, calling your name.

After the massage, you meet, as planned, to go into the family-sized Jacuzzi together (your choice). You are naked under your robe—it is a women-only Jacuzzi, so you had thought naked was the appropriate choice.

By the time you hang up your robe, and glance into the tub, you realize the mistake you have made. Not only are you the adulterous half-Jew from California, you are the only naked person, and to top it off, you are sporting a Brazilian bikini wax (special for your lover). The whole family—mother, sister, aunts, cousins, and grandma—stop talking when you submerge your naked, hairless body into the frothy tub. The sister glares at you and shakes her head.

You wish you had chosen the steam room, where the cloud of eucalyptus vapor might have hidden your nudity.

“How was your massage?” You ask another cousin, this one a little older and very pregnant; she is sitting across from you on the edge of the hot tub with her feet dangling in.

“It was just average,” she says as if she gets a massage every day of her life.

“Mine was really nice,” You say and then turned to the mother, who is wearing a navy one-piece with little sailor buttons, “Thanks again for making the reservations.”

“We’re glad you could come,” she says through a stiff smile, though she’s not looking in your direction, saving herself from seeing her son’s lover’s boobs bobbing about in the spa.

“The girl who massaged me acted like I was going to break,” the pregnant cousin complains, “but worse than that, she had these eyebrows that hadn’t been plucked for a really long time, so she had stray hairs everywhere. It looked so gross.”

Rather than asking her if she is serious (because you can already tell that she is), you nod, trying to look sympathetic, not with the gentle masseuse who maybe didn’t have time to get spa treatments herself, but with the very pregnant cousin.

Then you realize that you yourself have not had much time lately, and though you had tidied up your bikini area, you can’t remember the last time you plucked your own eyebrows. You know that if you reach up to touch them and check, it will seem obvious. So you just sit there with your arms crossed over your breasts wondering if your sweat smells like sauvignon blanc (it probably does).

You hope you have spent enough quality time with the lady folk, so you can get back up to the hotel room where there’s someone waiting (if the golf day is over) who will appreciate your new wax job.

After a couple of the women head to shower, you convince yourself that it is appropriate for you to leave, so you rush over to your towel and robe and head straight for the mirror in the bathroom.

Sure enough, your brows are wild with itinerant hairs. Even the middle section above your nose.

At the time, you do not know that your lover’s family will have an intervention (mostly successful) a few weeks later. That they will drive over to his house late in the night and beg him to quit you like you are a drug he has become addicted to (through no fault of his own).

For the moment, you are living under the belief that he will travel the world with you (indefinitely).

Sometime later, you will find out that he has been working under another assumption: in his version of you, you will be happy living on a suburban Midwestern Lake, baking your children Jack-o-Lantern cupcakes for Halloween. He does not yet know that operating an oven is not among your talents, nor that you do not want children for whom to bake orange treats.

All of this will come later.

All you know right now is that you are not Bellagio People.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of four books of poems and a memoir, Almost Somewhere (Bison Books, 2012), which won the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award. She has been published widely in journals, such as Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and National Geographic Traveler and anthologies, including The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Southern Sin, Tahoe Blues, and The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader. She holds a PhD in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA programs in creative writing at Chatham and Sierra Nevada College. More information may be found on her website.

Travelers' Tales