Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pranks





I don't sit around planning pranks. Occasionally, they just sort of come to me. More often than not they fail, but some work out gloriously. Here are four pranks I have pulled over the past thirty years that have been fun and/or ironic.






"Friend" "Four"
While in Yemen, the Peace Corps headquarters in the capital arranged a one-year check-in conference for my group. We came from all over the country to the western sea port of Hodeidah for three days of sessions and bonding. We stayed at the Al Borg hotel, a very nice spot with good food (I was particularly fond of the lentil soup). It was a high rise hotel near downtown and not far from the beaches, a great place to get together. We roomed together in two's and three's. We all arrived a day early, and we were soon planning a pick up football game on the mud flats outside of town. As we were moving from room to room to gather recruits, I stopped by Steve and Eric's room to see if they wanted to play. Eric was 6'7" tall and a former semi-pro basketball player, quite an athlete. Steve was a world travelling laid-back zen master poet, sort of. I am still not sure what Steve is. Anyway, Eric agreed and Steve declined. Steve went into the bathroom and Eric and I devised a quick little gag (I should mention that Eric was a gentle giant, a very large hippie). I was quite surprised Eric went along with it actually. We moved an end table up against the door of the bathroom. The idea was that after we left, Steve would have to struggle to get out of the bathroom. We didn't bargain on two things however; 1)the end table was too heavy for Steve to move, and 2) Steve's really poor command of Arabic. He ended up locked in the bathroom for 4 hours.
After a few minutes struggling with the door and yelling, Steve realized we had left and no one inside the hotel would hear him. He managed to pry open the very small bathroom window and get his head out. The window faced the back alley, and there wasn't much foot traffic. The only people who passed by were local Yemeni with no English. When Steve first noticed a passerby, it hit him that he didn't know how convey his situation in Arabic. He realized he hadn't learned the word for "help" or the words for "fourth floor." He thought for as second and bellowed "Sadiq, arba." This is Arabic for "Friend, Four." Unfortunately, Steve had to repeat this appeal to about 20 quizzical sojourners before one thought to go inside and complain about the odd American yelling unintelligible things from a small window. We felt very bad that he spent his day in there, but he was a good sport. By the time we returned six hours later, Steve had been freed, and he had learned the Arabic world for help.
"Your Mini-Bar Bill Sir"
It was at another conference/reunion in Yemen, that I got to pull my next prank. Once again, it was a crime of opportunity. We were staying in a much fancier hotel, the Taj in Sanaa. Again we were assigned roommates, and there was a great deal of shuffling as various volunteers bargained to switch rooms for more "romantic clusterings." A group of us were about to head out and play basketball. We had quite a collection of athletes in that Peace Corps group: 1 college basketball player, 2 college football players, 1 college high jumper, and 1 college soccer player. We were always outside playing something from our early days in training to the sporadic reunions years after we left Yemen. The best athlete by far was Greg, a former starting linebacker for UCLA. Greg was a tough California surf dude. He was also smart - an English major. Greg was fun loving, and usually up for anything. With all that going for him, he had one fatal, exploitable flaw - he was a bit cheap to say it mildly. We were all gathered in the lobby by the bar waiting for Greg to come down to join us. We sat on comfortable benches facing the front desk. I sat there, bored and a bit irritated from waiting when a terrible idea came to me. I walked over to the house phone and called Greg's room. Now I will not try to emulate here the really horrible Indian accent I employed (the hotel was owned and operated by Indians), but it must have been convincing. I identified myself as Rajid at the front desk, and I proceeded to tell "Mr. Bolin" about all the missing items from his mini-fridge and that he needed to rectify the situation before I left my shift. Greg argued with me earnestly, then accepted my invitation to come downstairs to settle the matter discretely. I walked back to the group, got their attention and said, "wait three minutes and watch what happens at the front desk." True to form, Greg appeared shortly thereafter and made a beeline for the front desk from the elevator. We had front row seats. We couldn't hear him, but we could see him gesticulating from behind, and we could also see the sincere yet confused faces of the front desk staff. Greg flailed his arms about for a minute or so, then caught on something wasn't right. All of a sudden, he spun around to see ten of his peers rolling around on the lobby floor. I did go over and offer my apologies to the staff later who did not seem to understand the humor in the event. Sadly, Greg passed away four years later. Right after finishing his MBA, getting a job on Wall Street, and becoming engaged, Greg was struck by a car that had lost control on a California curve while he was bicycling.
"Tasmanian Devils"
When I was in college, I lived in a doubly abysmal place - it was a fraternity with a group of football players: every mother's nightmare! It was pretty raucous there, and we all learned how to patch drywall. Alcohol, testosterone, and suspect intellects do not a good party make. Periodically, someone would introduce a foreign element into the environment that would have devastating effects. For some reason, one resident thought it would be fun to bring a cattle prod to the house. Five fights and $1000 in damages later, it was discarded. Then there was the dartgun. I won't go into that. Not everyone in the house was big and rowdy, but most learned how to defend themselves. One such reluctant warrior was Mark who stood 5'8 and weighed 130 lbs soaking wet. I don't know how we started a feud, but it quickly escalated to a war. I personally think Mark overcompensated due to his slight stature, and that he was the more unreasonable combatant....
I remember noticing that things were getting more serious about halfway through the feud. I had broken into his room and put Icy Hot in his underwear. I got the salve from football practice, but it took me three days to find the rubber gloves - I wasn't going into his drawers drawers unprotected. A few days later I opened my door to find I no longer owned sheets, pillows, or bedcovers. I thought I had smelled something burning in the back when I came in that day.
It was an unwritten law that you could not discuss or confront your adversary about these issues, you simply continued until one capitulated. I had underestimated Mark. I waited until Mark went home for a long weekend, then rigged a small bucket of all ready turning milk to dump on his head when he walked through his door. I wasn't home when he tripped the trap, but I smelled that awful stench for a week. I was on my toes constantly after that day, expecting the inevitable retaliation. It didn't come for awhile, so I thought I had prevailed. At least until I heard the upstairs smoke detector going off. I was downstairs in a meeting when the alarm sounded. We all rushed upstairs to see a gentle plum of smoke coming out from under my door. I rushed through the doorway to find a large barbecue grill sitting in the middle of the room. On it sat my prize possession, a stuffed Tasmanian Devil doll engulfed in flames. I tried to rescue it and burned my hands. When the chaos subsided,I realized that I admired and feared Mark now, but the feud had gone public and I had to make a statement. I had lost a friendly devil and gained a malevolent one. I waited three weeks.
Mark had some weaknesses - he had a prissy young girlfriend and two very conservative evangelical parents. I waited for the confluence to occur then I struck. Actually, I sort of created the illusion of the confluence, but that is a technicality. Mark's girlfriend would often spend the night, and they went to elaborate lengths to conceal the fact, although we all knew. Once every few months, Mark's parents would come to the house and he would make us clean up and leave when they arrived. As I mentioned, he had two nice weaknesses.
I waited until his girlfriend spent the night on a Saturday. I woke up at about 5:30am and I unfolded my simple, brutal retort. I made a very lovely pattern of thumbtacks outside his door, took out the hallway light bulb, and banged on his door. I did my best to muffle my voice and declared "Mark, your parents are here, they are downstairs." I waited a few seconds to take in the commotion inside the room (I actually think he knocked her out of bed) before I rushed back to my room. I jumped in bed and counted to ten. When I got to seven, I heard his door open, heard him hopping and grunting, then heard him crash to the floor. A few seconds later came the haunting bellow - "Morschesssssssssssssssss." The feud ended there that morning as I gentley pulled out a dozen or so tacks from all over his body with my pliers.
"Johnny, June, and Me"
When I was working in Jamaica, I often volunteered on weekends at the SOS Children's Village outside of town (Montego Bay). I helped them start up a Boy Scout program, and arranged some local camping trips. It was a lot of fun. One day, as we were hiking out into the hills, we came across a very nice house. I asked one of the teachers who was with us who owned the house. He looked at me with surprise and said, "Why Johnny Cash of course." Evidently, Johnny Cash had purchased the house and was often in residence. He and his wife June also supported the Children's Village. I thought that was very neat, and mentioned it to the school director when we returned. He cheerily told me what great people the Cash's were, and that he would introduce me to them the next time they came to Jamaica. Very neat indeed.
Sometime later, I mentioned to a fellow volunteer that I might get to meet Johnny Cash and she got very excited. She lived nearby and was often over visiting. It turned out that Johnny was her favorite musical artist. I was pleased with her reaction and vowed to let her know if I ever got the chance to meet him so I could possibly include her. That was mid-March. A few weeks later, that magnanimous sentiment turned a bit more perverse.
It was the 1st of April when I decided to exploit her love of all things Cash. I was living in an apartment complex, and I had friends several floors below who had a phone I occasionally used. This was well before cell phones, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I could not afford my own landline. My friend, the fan, was over with some other volunteers, and we were cooking a joint meal. I had made arrangements with my phone friends a few hours earlier to help me orchestrate a very simple plan. On cue, one of them came upstairs to see me to tell me that Johnny Cash was on the phone for me. I looked up, my hands wrist deep in some concoction and I casually asked his biggest fan in the room if she could take my call. She went nuts, screaming for directions to the apartment. My phone friend left (he went and hid down the hall) and I sent her down to take a message. My phone friend's wife was in the apartment, had locked the door, and had turned on their very loud shower. When my surrogate got to the apartment, she knocked several times, tried the handle, then heard the shower. Evidently she pounded and screamed (witnessed by the subsequent neighbourly complaints) and soon came running back upstairs. She burst in the room, out of breath, and I heard something to the effect of "Door, Locked, Johnny, Shower, Help."
I looked up from my culinary task and calmly said "Imagine that, Johnny Cash calling me on the first of April." She nodded and began to rant again, pretty much the same chorus. I repeated my statement twice before everyone else in the room had suffered too much and were crying with laughter. She still didn't get it, she thought they were laughing because she couldn't answer an actual call from the legend. Finally, I asked what day it was. She told me Tuesday, I said "no, what is the date?" Then it dawned on her. Her face was already red, then it turned very pale as she slumped in a chair. She looked up, called me a bastard, then smiled and asked me what was for dinner.
Almost a month to the day later, I got a call from the Children's Village telling me Mr. Cash and his wife were in town and I could meet them that afternoon if I hurried. Ironically, my friend was out of town, and I rushed over. I met the Cash's and they invited me and the senior staff to lunch. It was a great time, but I could never get my friend to believe that I had met them. I had forgotten my camera in the rush, and she simply believed I was sadistically piling on the torture.
Years later, I would come into my living room to see my three-year old daughter sitting in the middle of the room listening to the stereo. As I rounded the corner, I heard her sing perfectly, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." I vowed never to deceive her about anything "Cash."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Before Kipp was Hip


This handsome young gentleman is my friend Kipp, who accompanied me on my trip to East Africa in 1989. Kipp was also teaching English in Yemen, in a little village in south central Yemen, Oozla. Kipp had several Lonely Planet books,and he did most of the research for the trip. I was along for the ride, grateful for the company. What I did not know at the time was that Kipp would do his level best not to survive the trip. He did, but I don't know how!
The beginning of our trip gave no indications of the travails to come. Things went smoothly as we proceeded from Sanaa to Aden to Addis Abba to Nairobi. We made it into town to our hotel with little fuss. We looked around, found something to eat, and enjoyed the summer weather at altitude. While walking downtown late on that Sunday evening, Kipp had his first mishap. Poetically, it was the most minor of several to come. We were looking at various shops and I spotted one that had some very beautiful art pieces in the window. I called Kipp over. The window was recessed with a thick glass pane. Inside the pane were several pieces of art on the window ledge. Behind them was an iron grate. Somehow, Kipp thought the artwork was on the outside ledge of the window, he didn't see or conceptualize the glass pane. He excitedly leaned forward to touch something, banged his head on the glass, and fell backwards onto the sidewalk. He survived Nairobi without further incident. After a few days in town, we went on safari (see the previous post). When we returned to Nairobi, we prepared for the major portion of the trip where we would travel inland through five countries in a few weeks.
Our first stop was in Naivaisha, my only stipulation. The local lake had largemouth bass in it, and I wanted to be able to say I caught a bass in Africa. It was a beautiful spot and we rented a small banda for a few days. While there, we came across several European women backpacking through Kenya. Kipp was very enamored with one of them, so we spent an evening as a group. I went out on the lake and caught a good stringer of fish, and we had them for dinner. Evidently, the women were impressed with this fact, and Kipp took notice. I thought no more of it, and we soon resumed our travels. I had no idea Kipp was planning to meet up with the women again in Uganda, or that he was working on a scheme to provide an even more manly, rustic meal for them. I would soon figure it out though.
As I have mentioned, Kipp planned a good deal of the trip, and I followed along occasionally asserting a desire to take a small side trip. Kipp was in complete charge in Uganda, and we moved from site to site with relative ease. He eventually told me that we were going to stop in St. Elizabeth National Park for a day to view wildlife. I did not know that he had arranged a rendezvous with the Europeans there. We stopped at the last little town before the park for provisions. I didn't pay attention to what Kipp was gathering, I was just trying to find water and a Snickers candy bar. When we got back in the cab, I noticed Kipp's bag was moving. He looked at me and just smiled. When we got to the gates of the park, he announced that we had a several mile hike to the main lodge. We took our supplies out of the cab and began to arrange them so that we could tote them for several hours. Kipp reached into a bag and pulled out a live chicken, boldly declaring that he was going to butcher it and we would have it for dinner. I just sort of stared at him. A day before, we had linked up with an American from Washington DC who was a decent travelling companion. He was relatively quiet, and fairly culturally sensitive. The three of us walked through gate and eagerly began our long hike to the lodge. About a mile into the journey, I began to notice lots of animal tracks and signs on and around the road. I looked up and Kipp and our new friend were chatting pleasantly, seemingly unaware of the flapping chicken strapped to the back of Kipp's backpack. I slowed down, suddenly becoming aware of just where we were. We were traipsing through a game park with bait strapped to one of our backs. I called ahead to the two of them. I told them I was a bit tired, and that they should go on ahead and I would catch up. I let them get about a mile ahead before I began walking again. Kipp and his chicken made it safely to the lodge, and he did kill it and we did eat it. Sadly though, the women never showed up.
A few days later, we reached the border of Uganda and Rwanda. When we first entered Uganda, we did some finagling with our finances. At that time the government required that each tourist cash $200 and exchange it for Ugandan shillings. The black market was rampant, and the shilling was almost worthless. We crossed on a Sunday when the banks were closed. We then went to the Sheraton and cashed $20 each. The obliging desk clerk left a space between the last zero and decimal, and when he turned his back, we picked up the pen and added a zero. We had learned about this in our Lonely Planet guide. The only trick was to make sure your money balanced when you left the country, as the exit officials would check. When we walked through the border crossing, I went in first. I had hidden money in my brush, and it appeared that I had the right amount of cash. Kipp then followed me in. He had ignored my admonitions about balancing his cash, and when I opened the door to walk out into Rwanda, I heard him call out my name. He shouted "Hey Mike, did I give you some American cash to hold for me?" I was in the clear, and had no desire to return to Uganda to explain myself. One of the Ugandan border officials looked at me quizzically. I looked back and said "I don't know that man." I walked out into the beautiful Rwandan sunshine and Kipp spent a few hours and $50 explaining himself to the Ugandans.
We stopped in Rwanda with the express purpose of visiting the mountain gorillas in Ruhengari. I hadn't yet seen the movie Gorillas in the Mist, but I was aware of it. We spent an evening in the capital, Kigali, before making our way north to the mountains. As we were walking in town looking for the national park offices, we got lost. I was walking beside Kipp reading a map, trying to orient myself. Kipp was just strolling, taking in the sights. After a few minutes, I realized Kipp was no longer talking. I stopped, put the map down and turned around. Kipp had fallen in a massive hole in the street. At this point, I was mystified - I was walking with a large unfolded map in my face and he had fallen in. I helped him out and we eventually made it to the gorillas and had an amazing time.
We ran into political problems when we got to Burundi and had to return back to Uganda the way we had come. We were irritated, and it was a long gruelling journey back. Once we returned to Kampala, we decided to go all the way back to Nairobi, where we would part company. I was running low on cash and was anxious to return to Yemen for the volunteer training, and Kipp was excited to go onto Tanzania. We got back to Nairobi, spent a fun evening and said goodbye in the morning. It had been a very good trip, and I left with a lifetime of memories. Kipp pressed on, determined to continue tempting fate.
I first heard about Kipp's next misadventure back in Sanaa. I was told he was in a hospital in Tanzania, the victim of a bus accident. He had dislocated his shoulder and had to return to Nairobi. He stayed there a few days before returning to Yemen. We were all eager to see Kipp when he returned to make sure he was ok, and to hear the story. More Peace Corps volunteers are killed in accidents than from any other cause. Kipp came from the airport with a large sling on his arm. We greeted him and he shared the story.
Kipp had crossed the border into Tanzania and boarded a mid-sized bus for Kilimanjaro. He sat near the back and was enjoying the ride. At some point the bus began to skid and Kipp made a split-second decision. He had heard somewhere that drunks and infants were often unhurt in accidents as they were completely relaxed. In that millisecond it took him to recall that, he let go of everything and tried to "unbrace" himself. The bus crashed and Kipp was the only one injured.
I am glad to say Kipp had no more death defying incidents that I was aware of. Evidently, that trip to East Africa had his number. I was very glad he survived. I did decline a later trip to South East Asia with him however........

Saturday, September 25, 2010

On a Cheap Safari with Cheaper Spaniards


A friend just sent me this picture, I had never seen it before. It was from a safari we took together in 1989 to Masi Mara in Kenya. And even though it had been more than twenty years, I recognized the look and intent on my face immediately - I was ready to kill some Spaniards. I didn't end up harming any of them directly, although I did exact some measure of revenge/justice without creating an international incident. It turned out to be a good safari.
I was on my summer break while teaching in a refugee camp in Yemen. I had two months off, and I was eager to visit nearby Africa. Another volunteer and I planned the trip for months before we left, hoping to travel through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. We would travel for a month or so, as I wanted to return early to help train the new set of Peace Corps Volunteers who would arrive late summer. My friend did most of the planning, and we had a very impressive itinerary created by the time we landed in Nairobi.
Having just spent a year in a very conservative Muslim country, we enjoyed the amenities of Nairobi for several days before we journeyed out into the countryside (actually, I think I spent the first two days in the Modern Green Bar, a legendary establishment that hadn't closed its front door since 1968 - another story for another blog that my daughter doesn't read!). We found an inexpensive safari outfit that promised to take us to Masi Mara and a few other parks for three days. I was very excited, at least until I met our fellow travellers. We would spend three days in a small van with four Europeans, three from Spain. I was prepared to like them, I really was.
Two of the Spaniards were very gregarious, and I initially thought they would be great companions. The third (sitting to my left in the picture) said all of three words to me in three days. He turned out to be my favorite. So much for first impressions. We had two Kenyan drivers, who were quite pleasant and very helpful. Perhaps if they hadn't been so nice to me, I might not have plotted against the Spaniards who were rude and very impolite to these guides. In any event, it gave me something to consider when the wildlife was absent.
We first talked to the Spaniards while waiting for the safari to get underway. The Kenyans were a few hours late, and the Spaniards declared they would give no tip at the end of the safari for this outrage. This was the first of their many gifts to the continent that I would witness. Unfortunately, they had been there for months before I stumbled upon them. The two that talked to me quickly explained that it was their goal to stay in Africa as long as they could, spending as little as possible. They went on to detail how they defrauded local banks with "funny" travellers cheques, how they never tipped, and how they drove down any price offered to them by the Blacks. I was quite sure that I did not invite these lessons in thrift, yet they were offered to me through the course of the three days. But as I mentioned, it was how they treated our guides that set me on my determined course.
When we made camp the first evening, I was quite pleased that our tent was a good distance from that of my adversaries. I considered absconding with some dinner scraps and later sprinkling them around their tent. We were in the middle of a massive game reserve after all. I thought of the mess, and the difficulties it would present for the guides, then reconsidered.
It was the second day when I heard from the mute Spaniard. He was the antithesis of his colleagues, dour, quiet, and forlorn. I tried to speak to him and he just stared at me. Finally, I asked him what he did for a living. His reply, "I rrride arses." It took me a minute to gather the context, for I desperately did not want it to mean what I thought it meant. He saw my bewilderment or horror, and he mimed riding a horse. That was it, I ride horses. I never heard him speak again.
I got my hopes up again on the second day of the safari. We stopped by a large river for lunch. We got out of the van and I looked down over the river. The bank was about thirty feet high, very steep. At first I thought I was looking at some very large logs that had run aground on the sandy shore. When one of them moved upstream, I realized they were very large crocodiles. A new idea brewed. It would be easy - I would call the Spaniards over, point down at the awesome site, wait till they huddled together in wonder, then give them a little nudge. I figured they would have a sporting chance, one might even make it out alive. When I called to them they looked at me like I was crazy, and only the mute meandered over. I wasn't sure if I lost my nerve, or perhaps the thought of not having the pleasure of hearing him scream made me abandon the plan. I still had one more day.
On the last day in the park, we made our way to a Masai village where we would spend an hour with the tribesmen. When we pulled up to the circular set of huts enclosed by a stick fence, we were told we would have to pay $5 each to go in. In return we would be allowed to take as many pictures as we liked. I was thrilled to go in. As I crawled to the front of the van to get out (the Spaniards were not going to part with that much cash for the opportunity), one of my foes said something to me that I did not understand. I ignored him and stumbled out of the van and started walking towards the gate, five dollars in hand. I heard my name called from inside the vehicle and I looked back to see one of them hand a very expensive camera to the mute at the window. He stuck out his arm with the camera and nodded at me. Evidently, they thought I would carry their camera into the village and take pictures for them. I walked back towards the van, dodging cow dung and mud, smiling broadly. As I got in range, I nodded in acquiescence. I reached out for the camera, and when he released it, I dropped it. I looked down, stifled my grin, feigned as much remorse as possible, looked up, and mouthed the word "oops." I did an about face and spent a very enjoyable hour with the Masai. I got no more argument for austerity from my friends from Spain on the four hour ride back to Nairobi.

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Favorite City on Earth


Aqabah












I first heard the name of this city in an Anthony Quinn swashbuckler (no, not Lawrence of Arabia). He was a pirate headed for Aqabah, the greatest city on Earth. Something about the sound of the name intrigued me, and I had no idea if it was a real place or not. Forty years later I would find out.


Eventually, I did learn about Aqabah, most notably through Lawrence of Arabia. It was a destination, a target, but little of it was portrayed in the movie. Perhaps it remained a vestige of my boyhood romance, for it never left me. Years later, when I was travelling through Jordan on my way to the Sinai Peninsula, I was excited to learn I would pass through Aqabah. I really didn't know what to expect, almost worried that like so many idealized notions of my youth, it wouldn't hold up. I wasn't disappointed when I finally made my way into the city.
Aqabah is as beautiful as it is simple. It is an ancient place with a western sensibility that balances comfortably between the two worlds. Desert meets sea in an intimate oasis. There are luxury hotels, open marketplaces, mosques, schools, parks, and beaches. There is something there for everyone, witnessed by the equal numbers of tourists and Jordanians enjoying the warm, relaxed ambiance. I love that dichotomy, love the fact that I can eat freshly caught fish at an open-air barbecue or wander down to the Movenpick for a grand buffet. I love walking through the market area, a warm Red Sea breeze in my face. I love strolling though the ruins of an ancient fort, then dashing off to McDonalds for some fries. I love staying in cheap hotels with friends, or maybe splashing out at the Intercontinental. I love snorkeling at a private beach, or spending my evening on the public beach watching families enjoying a Red Sea sunset. There is nothing about the place I would change.
Aqabah would be a great place to retire, or maybe even spend a honeymoon. I can imagine walking arm in arm with someone I love there. I've been to Cairo, Paris, London, Nairobi, Zanzibar, San Francisco, Jerusalem, Amman, Alexandria, Athens, Montego Bay, Honolulu, and I still can't imagine a better place to be in love than on a balcony in Aqabah looking out over the palms.

Aisha


As I have mentioned, I lived and worked in an Eritrean refugee camp for two years, from 1988 - 1990. I finished my two-year stint (US Peace Corps) just as the Gulf War was escalating. It was a tough two years, health and climate wise, but wonderful in so many other ways. I had contracted Typhoid while in training, had Malaria three times while in my village, and I managed to pick up Hepatitis just as I was leaving the camp to return home. I lost sixty pounds while there, eventually weighing far less than I should have. The temperature never dipped below 85, and often crested 110. I had no running water or electricity for most of the tour, and I ate very modestly, usually beans, eggs, and a few vegetables. I spent most of my free time with the kids in the camp, or my two counterparts from Sudan and Somalia. When I needed personal time (often), I walked for miles up and down the shores of the Red Sea looking for seashells to make jewelry for the kids in the camp. It was a simple time with simple pleasures.
One such pleasure was my daily interaction with Aisha. Aisha, her younger sister, and their mother lived in a little shack like the ones pictured above. I had to walk past their home whenever I left the camp or returned. In the thousand or so times I passed by, I don't think I ever missed Aisha. She was always there or nearby.
Aisha was 17, had one dress, and the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. If I had seen her anywhere else, I would have sworn she was a gypsy. She had long, curly hair that fell below her shoulders. She was darker than her sister and mother, almost dusky. Her teeth were brilliantly white, her eyes almost black, and she seemed to hover as she walked. I would have guessed she was 25. I made a large necklace for her, and she wore it constantly (I made one for her mother and sister as well). Each time I walked by, she greeted me and tried to engage me in a curious mix of Arabic and Afar. We never had a prolonged conversation, as her mother was also usually nearby. To tell the truth, I suppose I knew she liked me right away. I just didn't indulge in the possibilities.
I enjoyed the daily interaction with her, but I was careful too. I didn't look into her eyes, as I was positive I could become lost there. She was strong and vulnerable - I was there to help, and I was lonely. I understood clearly how some caregivers crossed that line, understood that when you serve others with issues of your own, things can become confusing. More than once, she tried to get me to go off on some imagined errand with her, but I resisted. It was one time in my life where my ethical sense had complete control of my weak and wounded heart.
Aisha's attention did eventually become a problem for me. Despite the fact that I never acted inappropriately towards or with her, it was becoming apparent to others that she was interested in me. One of these others was Hello, one of my best students in the camp. Hello was by far my favorite person in Yemen! He had a wide smile showcasing two chipped teeth. And yes, his name was Hello. I never got that story.
Hello began mentioning Aisha, and kidding me that she liked me. At first I just dismissed it, vowing to be even more careful with her. I noticed though, that when he talked about her, there was a sadness in his eyes. Finally, I sat him down and told him I had no interest in her, she was far too young and I was not a Muslim. He protested for awhile before admitting he was in love with her. I reassured him that if she liked me, it was just a silly crush she would get over shortly. I then asked him why he had not tried to talk to her, or at least to her mother. He was very shy, and had the additional burden of being a penniless orphan. He did feel better knowing that she wasn't going to run away to America with me, but he also realized that he probably couldn't have her. I really didn't know how to advise him, so I told him to talk to the elders in the camp for advice.
Life returned to normal, I chatted briefly with Aisha each day, and spent more time with Hello and his friends. We were busy finishing the school and doing our extra English lessons. A few months later though, Hello came to me, very excited, almost giddy. I assumed it had something to do with Aisha. He told me that she was "being offered" to some businessman in Aden for marriage, but the arrangement hadn't been finalized. This confused me, as I thought it would be bad news. As he caught his breath, he explained that this meant that Aisha's mother was ready for her to be married, and that anyone could compete for her hand. It was just a small issue of the brideprice....
I knew of the Yemeni custom of a brideprice and corresponding dowry, but I did not know the details. I had heard wildly different stories about the actual expense involved, and I was very curious how Hello thought he could manage a "counter offer." He told me he had saved almost $100 over five years, and the other boys could scrape together nearly as much on his behalf. He was very excited and I didn't have the heart to tell him I thought it was far too low a sum to offer for Aisha. He then asked me if I would talk to Aisha's mother via one of the elders on his behalf. I tried to refuse, as it was my policy to stay out of personal and political issues in the camp (something I learned over a goat, another story, another time). He was so sincere, so hopeful that I eventually agreed.
When Aisha learned I was coming to talk to her mother, she assumed I was coming to ask for her hand. She was very upset when we explained our true purpose. She knew Hello, but I don't think she had ever considered him for marriage. I felt very bad, and was upset that the translators hadn't clarified this before I arrived. The meeting was off to a bad start, and it would get far worse, at least for Hello.
After we had tea from the family's only set of glasses, we began to talk. Aisha's mother understood our purpose, and I didn't get most of the conversation as it was in Afar. I knew when we got to the issue of brideprice though, as she smiled ironically at first, then looked kindly at Hello. She let him know his offer was far lower than that of the businessman from South Aden. Hello was crushed. At that point, I interjected and told her maybe I could help. I offered $1,500 more - the money I had saved over the two years. Hello perked up, but I saw in her face that it was a woefully inadequate offer. She looked at me just as kindly as she had Hello, and I caught the part of her explanation that the existing offer was 20 times ours. Hello was crushed again, I felt foolish and impotent. We lingered for a bit, observing cultural necessities, then left.
Hello was not the same, and Aisha no longer flirted with me. I went out of my way to avoid her and to spend more time with Hello. I tried to explain to him that we all go through this and that I knew how much he was hurting. I went on to guarantee him that only time would help him heal. But I knew it was a lie. I knew what he felt for Aisha, and I knew what the future as an orphan in a refugee camp held for him.
Aisha left shortly thereafter for Aden, and I was preparing to end my tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I left Hello my US contact information, and we had fun planning my goodbye party. We bought all the available chickens in the nearby village and had the biggest barbecue the camp had seen. I said goodbye to a hundred people that evening, and spent the last hour with Hello. He assured me he would be ok, and thanked me for my help. We parted promising to keep in touch. I never heard from Hello again. The civil war in Eritrea ended three years later, and I have prayed since that he made his way home, and that he found a woman he could love. I also pray for Aisha.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Natalie


I first met Natalie when she arrived in Tanzania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was one of forty or so Math and Science teachers. She is the young lady in the center right of the photograph with her hands raised high. I don't think I ever saw Natalie without that smile. Her host country counterpart was Glory, the woman just above Natalie to the left, with an equally joyous smile. They were quite a team!
I didn't spend a great deal of time with Natalie when she was a trainee, but when I did, I was amazed at her love of life. She was always in a good mood, and I never heard her say anything negative about anyone.
After three months of training, Natalie moved out to her site near Dodoma, the official capital of Tanzania. I looked forward to visiting her several months later as part of my duties as her supervisor. I suspected that she was doing well, despite her relative inexperience as a teacher. She was just one of those types that was gonna thrive.
When I arrived at her site, I was very pleased that she was indeed doing well, and that she had really bonded with her counterpart, Glory. Glory couldn't have been born with a more appropriate name. She was as optimistic as Natalie, and maybe even smiled more! I observed them interact throughout the day, and was very jealous - I had never had a counterpart or peer that I worked with so well. After observing their separate lessons, they both eagerly sought feedback, and soaked up my suggestions and offer for further resources. When I talked to their headmistress, it was clear that this tandem was the heart and soul of the school, after only a few months!
I met with both of them a half a year later at a regional conference in the area. True to form, they had incorporated my modest feedback, and were experimenting with some very creative and innovative classroom activities. Glory and her fellow counterparts worked late into the evening with me, opting to forgo the social gathering to learn more about basic pedagogy. At the end of the conference, Natalie and Glory were even more enthused to get back to their school and work with their students. I smiled as I saw them drive away, hoping that my own daughters would experience teachers as enthusiastic and motivated. When I got back to my office, I wrote them both a short note saying so.
Six months after the conference, Natalie went on a safari to Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania. She had a friend visiting from the US, and they and several others booked a cut-rate outfit to take them into the park. Beyond all comprehension, the guides let the women out of the Landrover to take pictures of a group of elephants nearby. When Natalie began to take photos, the clicking of the camera enraged one of the larger elephants. The elephant charged the group, and tragically, Natalie was the slowest back to the vehicle. The elephant overtook her and trampled her to death. Such a poor epitaph to such a short and vibrant life.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mary?

This is a young girl I met on my travels through western Kenya twenty years ago. We ate lunch at a small village restaurant and I played with her and some of her friends for half an hour before we snagged our next ride. Later, while in Nairobi, I was approached by a woman who might have been her elder sister late one night in a bar. We talked for a few hours, I gave her some money for her time (I declined her first offer), and I wrote this poem the next day.


Promises for Mary (a name she liked that day)

Born with the promise
of hunger and death
the last thing in life she expected
was disappointment

The shining promise
of an educational scheme
paled significantly
once removed
from the classroom

While love
freedom's promise
taught her loneliness
and just how friendly
physical pain can be

So it's up from country
unto the scene
she pedals tenderness
to the broken promise
of yesterday's dream

The soft promise
of a lying smile
sells
in Nairobi

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Touching Base - History Lessons Part II

Unfortunately, this is the article I wrote upon returning....

Touching Base

I have just returned from a two-week trip to London, where I was visiting an Islamic school in the wake of the subway bombings. The lessons I learned there were simple and vivid, as they always are whenever I leave the U.S. Typically, the experience was far from what I expected, yet consistent with my earlier experiences overseas. It seems that I learn a great deal when I travel, only to have the benefits of those lessons ebb away gradually once I return.
Having taught for two years in a small village in Yemen, I thought I knew what to expect from this Saudi Arabian school. Once I got there, however, I found many things that surprised me. I should mention, by the way, that whenever something surprises me, I have found it to be that I was working from some sort of incorrect bias. So when I was surprised that the teachers worked so well together, were open-minded and ready to learn, seemed to be very concerned with the welfare of each other and their students, and that the Muslim women were very open and progressive, I was saddened by my reaction. At this phase in my life, I thought that I had moved past the biases and stereotypes that created this surprise.
At the London school, I worked with Arab, European, Christian, and Muslim teachers from more than twenty countries. I was struck immediately by how important culture, religion, and ethnicity were to these people, and by how little those concepts impeded their work together. There was a tremendous amount of respect and acceptance that surrounded the environment, despite the fact that they weren’t always in agreement. But I had known these things before – what had happened in the past fifteen years that made me forget these lessons? Why was I surprised?
My first inclination was to blame the society I live in. Maybe the U.S.A. is just anti-Arab, and the incessant, subtle images of the media have an inescapable, inculcating effect. Even my most liberal friends, who are pro-Arab in many ways, condemn what they see as the oppression of women in the Middle East. It seems that good news regarding Islam and the Arab world is hard to find. But this is not a satisfactory explanation. After all, I thought I had freed myself from that bias, transcended that mentality.
Perhaps it is me. Perhaps there is an ugliness inside of me that wants to limit the capacity and humanity of others. It might be that it is just plain easier to expect less, to be surprised by decency. If so, how many other groups do I internally demean? But, once again, I thought I had evolved past this kind of influence.
So what is it? I am not sure, and that frightens me. It seems that I have to keep renewing these lessons, because obviously, I am bound to lose them if I don’t live them. This renewal of mine might be what a Christian would call the “Good Fight” or a Muslim a “Jihad” (the effort to remove obstacles that stand between humanity and God). Maybe it’s enough to recognize my susceptibility and to battle it unapologetically. I do know that I am bone-weary of these surprises.

History Lessons


This is an article I wrote five years ago before visitng the UK shortly after their subway bombings

History Lessons

I have always loved history, even when I discovered it had often lied to me. Today, as a teacher who is somewhat responsible for the education of scores of learners, I often grapple with the dilemma of sharing my passion for the subject while simultaneously promoting its majesty, utility, and duplicity. Fortunately, I have discovered a holistic perspective that neither blindly worships history nor indicts it as a by-product of hegemonic Euro-American propaganda. This perspective is included in James A. Banks’ Curriculum Transformation Model, and it is a wonderfully responsible approach to the histories that unite us all.
Traditionally, it can be sure, history has been written and presented largely through a Male, Euro-American perspective (often referred to as the Mainstream Perspective) that often ignores the voices and contributions of members from other non-dominant groups. The writing has been flat and matter-of-fact, often affirming concepts, thoughts, facts, and ideas that are unverifiable. If you pick up an old textbook and read about Christopher Columbus, you might swear that God had written it – being that it was so definite, unambiguous, decisive, unanimous, and clear. Who else has privy to that level of certainty?
In an effort to combat this one-sided view of the world, many politicians and educators have moved to what Banks might call the “Ethnic Additive Approach” (sometimes labeled “Heroes and Holidays”). *Warning – what follows is very controversial and evocative; proceed at your own risk! Banks thinks this is a mistake. Imagine a 7th grade class that is studying Biology and must wait until February to discuss the contributions of George Washington Carver, despite the natural ebb and flow of the curriculum (perhaps they had been focusing on agricultural biology in November). As attractive as things like African-American Month and National Women’s Day are, they might be simple acts of placation by a larger, less sensitive society. Instead of tacking on a section in the Psych book called “Famous Women in Psychology”, why not integrate their contributions into the appropriate sections of the book?
To be fair, I think Banks would agree that a move to the Ethnic Additive Approach seems logical and is well-intentioned. It would be preferable, though, to move to the next level, a “Multi-Ethnic Approach” (sometimes called “Integration”). At this level, the voices and contributions of all stake-holding groups are integrated in to the curriculum appropriately. A teacher presenting a lesson about the Gulf War would examine all the perspectives of all the significant groups involved (and yes, that of Suddam Hussein and the Iraqi people). This presents two types of problems for educators and learners: 1) It may be difficult to round up all those perspectives, and 2) We may have to expose ourselves to some “dangerous” information. The fruits of such exercise can only increase our appreciation for diversity and sharpen our critical thinking skills.
Finally, we come to view history as the intricate interaction of Nations of various entities (the “Multi-National Approach”) where we come to realize that every nation, every community is a complex formation of varied perspectives, experiences, and goals. We would no longer have the privilege of growing up believing there was something called a “Russian” who had no personality, no unique identity, just a mindless cog in a uniform society. How wrong we realized we were when the veil finally lifted from that society and we saw its true diversity! As tragically as it often played out, we came to know that it meant many different things to many different people to be a “Russian.”
For me, the primary lesson I have learned from James A. Banks is that of perspective-taking. Learning to listen to the perspectives of others and to work to understand and accept them (maybe not to agree with them however) has helped me reach and motivate groups of people that were previously unavailable. And despite all of this “tolerance” I have still maintained my ethical systems (though somewhat evolved now) and I haven’t lost myself in a sea of cultural relativity. If anything, this process has strengthened my thought processes and my identity as a responsible citizen in a larger world.

Citation: Banks, J. A. (1997) 6th edition. Teaching strategies for ethnic studies. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pushing Progress?


When I arrived in Yemen as a Peace Corps Volunteer on an ESL assignment, I was thrilled to learn there was some flexibility in our potential sites. I soon discovered that there was a volunteer working temporarily in the Tihama (the brutally hot coastal region of the country) in an Eritrean refugee camp building a school. I was excited for two reasons: 1) I might be able to work with Yemeni and African students and 2) It was on the Red Sea Coast and I could snorkel. Having recently left Jamaica, I was keen on developing my diving skills.
During my three-month training period, we had a break where we could spend the weekend at our potential sites. I lobbied to go to the coast with some volunteers that were to be placed in the large coastal city, Hodeidah (a few hours north of the tiny village I wanted to be placed in - Al Khawkha). These volunteers were to teach in large national programs in a bigger city. They would have houses with comforts - plumbing and electricity (for the fans!). We all made our way to the bus stop in the capital city of Sanaa for the four hour journey "down" to the coast. We were told we would travel in a luxurious video bus. At 7200 feet above sea level, Sanaa was indeed above the coast. We couldn't believe we would be in a big bus for a winding trip down through the mountains to the coastal plain. Sure enough, a brand-new coach pulled up complete with video monitors. We made our way down the serpentine, narrow road watching American wrestling videos and carsick Yemeni. I was glad when we ended the odyssey.
When the pneumatic door swooshed open, we were hit by a blast straight out of some one's oven. I had never felt heat and humidity like that in my life. It literally sucked the breath out of me. I was soaking wet with sweat long before I completed the three block journey to the host volunteer's house. I loved it. I survived the weekend, swam in the Red Sea, caught some lobsters, and came back resolved to be assigned in the region. As I have mentioned in a previous post, the Yemeni Ministry did not want any foreign volunteers living in coastal villages as the conditions were too severe. I persisted though, and ultimately prevailed. I was assigned to the village of my choice and soon sought out the volunteer building the school.
Tim was an interesting volunteer. He was an engineer by trade, and eventually confided in me that he really had no degree and had actually been convicted of a drug conviction. Evidently this slipped past his Peace Corps recruitment period, and was discovered late into his two year service. He told me that the officials were content to let him finish his tour, given that he had done a good job. His last assignment in country was to build a large one-room school in the refugee camp just outside the village of Al-Khawkha. I arrived when he was a third of the way into the project.I walked out to the camp and introduced myself a few days after I had settled in. He was surprised that I had been placed there, but welcomed the help on the school.
He was building the school with the sporadic help of a few other volunteers and the orphan boys of the camp. It was tough work at the height of the brutal Yemeni summer. He had built the outer foundation and had begun the walls when I arrived. I helped build the walls and then the roof structure. It was a very creative design as it had no support beams. The framed structure was eventually covered in plywood and then thatched. He really was a talented engineer despite his "credentials." For some reason, Tim could not stay to finish the school, and left me to finish covering the interior and exterior walls, as well as laying the concrete floor. I was happy to help finish his work.
The boys and I slowly continued the work. Another volunteer visited a few times and helped me apply a stucco surface on the walls. By the time we got to the floor however, most of the tools had walked off the job. It was hard, tedious work to mix that much concrete with inappropriate tools in 110 plus degree weather. We were all tired and exhausted. There was some comic relief though, like the day a very thin, determined young man decided to carry a 4X8 foot piece of 1/4 inch plywood by himself across the courtyard on a blustery day. I looked up from my concrete mud puddle just in time to see him lifted four feet straight up and then propelled ten feet laterally. He never let go of his cargo though, and eventually dragged it over to the school. He was uninjured (well not his pride anyway) as the camp was built on a sandy base.
We continued on, and it really took a toll on everyone. I was pushing hard to finish the school, and the boys were exhausted and pretty much feed up with the project. Fewer and fewer of them showed up each day. On one very hot and humid day, I made a mistake I have regretted since, something that exposed a part of my character I do not like to revisit.
I was trying to coax the few remaining boys to help me finish the last batch of concrete for the day. They were just milling about, and one boy who had been pretty much detached for a few days whispered something profane in his language in my direction. I stepped over to him and shoved him. I did not intend to hurt him, but the force knocked him to the ground - he was only about 5ft 6inches tall and maybe 125 pounds. The other boys were shocked and I was horrified. He got up, embarrassed and walked over and started mixing the concrete. Soon the rest of us joined in. I did not know how to handle the situation. I was wrong, I knew it, but we were finishing the job. I guess I thought I would just let it go - bygones be bygones. The issue wasn't over though, and I wasn't prepared for the direction the event would take.
Later that evening, I was called to the elders building (one of the shacks in the camp) to discuss what had happened. I should state that although there were adults in the camp, none of them had ever made it over to the construction site to help. I was sure I was in trouble, but was relieved to go deal with it as I had been feeling very guilty all day. When I walked into the poorly lit structure, I was met with some very solemn faces. They were speaking in Afar initially, and I didn't catch most of it. Finally, the eldest teacher came forward and translated for me. They brought the young man I had assaulted to the front of the room and told me he had something to tell me. He looked up with tears in his eyes and said in Arabic "ana asif usted!" (I am sorry sir). I was dumbfounded. I almost let it go with a magnanimous nod, realizing the whole thing would blow over in a few minutes. Before I could begin the absurd gesture, I thought better of it and put my hand on his shoulder. I asked the teacher to translate to the entire room (by now, elders and many of the boys). I spoke slowly and carefully. I told him that it was I who owed him an apology. I explained that I had shamed myself, and that even though he should not have spoken to me in that matter, it was I who acted in a cowardly manner. The room grew very quiet. I realized I was exploring dangerous territory. No it was not ok to shove children around, but there was a sanctity of tenure there, a protocol of age and station. These teachers and elders had very little worldly wealth or possessions. Dignity and reverence were their capital, and I was discarding mine. A risky precedent indeed. When I finished, no one responded. I turned and I excused myself and left for my tent.
I never spoke of the incident again in the camp, and this is the first time I have detailed the experience in the intervening twenty years. From that day, my relationship was strained with the adult males in the camp. They were polite, but there was an increased distance. This disaffection continued as the first Gulf War was looming, and the US was not being portrayed very generously in the region. The boys and I finished the school and I even taught some first aid courses in it for several months. About a week after that humiliating day, I came across the young man who had apologized to me for my weakness. I saw him walking in my direction, and I even considered ducking off behind one of the hundreds of shacks in the camp. I walked on though, and when I met his eyes, he smiled at me. A quiet, friendly smile. I was grateful for the semblance of redemption and for my deferred tears at that humbling intersection.
To this day, I often push too hard at tasks. I have a hard time understanding the human element in human enterprise. I am still working on this.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Farenheit 451


"Ignorance is simply the condition of being unaware - Stupidity is revelling in the fact."
I understand they will burn copies of the Koran in Florida in a few days to celebrate September 11th. As I witness the debate and the world-wide response to this purposed act, I remember a day four years ago when I tried to express similar sentiments and frustrations to a group of Muslim students in London who had defaced an American Flag. Ironically, I suppose, the latter group listened and acquiesced with respect and dignity. I have no such hope for this Florida group.
I was working in an Islamic school in London supervising the academic side of the mission. It was at the height of World Cup fever in Europe, and the art teacher had made a nice collage of the participating team's flags on a wall on the boy's side. Shortly after he put the art piece up, several students ripped off the American Flag. The teacher learned the identity of the boys, and I had the opportunity to talk to several of them. I was incensed initially at their violation of their teacher's work, something he had labored at and cared for. I was also concerned about the desecration of the flag, hoping I could get them to see it for something more complex and meaningful than a banner raised by an often hostile nation.
I met with three of the boys who knew they were in trouble. I was very serious, and I opened with what I thought would reach them first, their violation of their popular teacher's work. They apologized and admitted it was wrong, also acknowledging their understanding that they had hurt him beyond their intention. It was a good start. I moved on to a more esoteric tack, addressing the violation of a symbol. I knew they hated much of what they saw of America in their world. Oddly, it reflected my own feelings coming aware in the 70's as and American teenager. I understood what they felt, I just wanted them to see past the images they had been raised with to something deeper, something that had taken me forty years to appreciate. I began slowly, telling them that a flag stood for a lot of things, much like the Koran or the Bible. It was a symbol people found faith in, especially during difficult times. I told them about mothers who reluctantly sent their sons to war, to their deaths. Those mothers received flags in recognition of their sacrifice, their loss few of us could understand. I told them of the tens of thousands of Americans who did not agree with the current war, but supported their government, and the flag that represented what they wanted in their country - justice, peace, a better life for their children, a better life for all the world's children. I told them there were countless Americans who supported Palestine and Iraq, and sent money and resources to help. These Americans had the same flag. It is a symbol of hope, what we could be, what we should be. The ideals it was founded in flow from the Bible, from the Koran, from the Torah. Some people use it falsely, just as some misuse our sacred books. I just asked them to consider the faith and feelings of those people who wanted their flag to fly above a better, more compassionate land.
The American flag was not defaced again at the school. I am not sure it wasn't because they felt bad about their teacher's work, or if I had conveyed a different concept to them. They had listened to me though, and I do believe they think there is one American who wants to be proud of his flag, and should be given the chance to do so.
*On a lighter, related note - I came to school one morning after the American team had performed rather poorly. I walked over to the girl's elementary school where they were in morning parade. As I ambled up, two very young girls looked at me, sighed and slowly covered their faces in shame for my teams abyssmal performance.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Dreams


I have reevaluated my dreams lately. For the past five years, I have had a very specific dream, one which has crashed lately. I will not realize it, and I am dealing with the aftermath of that loss. When you have a dream and you follow it, so much of everyday, so many details incidental to that dream fall to the side. The world has a rich context to it: There are people, things, resources that help you move closer to the dream, and there is a plethora of junk that just doesn't matter. Remove the dream, and your world changes vividly.
As I said, my dream is gone. The world is a strange and foreign place to me right now. I know how to move forward, to take care of my family and responsibilities, but I have lost my compass, my ability to appreciate the world around me with the passion of a man who has a purpose. I am dealing with this, almost clinically. I look around me and realize that nothing much gives me pleasure, nothing much stimulates me. I have slipped into a routine of distraction - hoping to find momentary tasks that divert me from the empty darkness that has encroached on my periphery. Maybe I have finally reached my "quiet life of desperation" Thoreau talked about. I have always been slow anyway. I do know that I don't want this particular song to follow me to my grave.
The picture above is from a small public school on Zanzibar called Kiswanduli. I spent a day there last October. This class is their special needs class, and we had a very fun hour counting to ten in Swahili - moja, mbili, tatu, ne, tano, sita, saba, nane, tisa, kumi. Each time we finished the sequence, the young woman in the bottom of the frame with her back to the camera flashed the most beautiful, joyous smile I had ever seen. She and the other students were so pleased to be with me, having so much fun in a classroom. It was an hour that I wished could be a decade. Later in the afternoon, I spent a few hours with some blind students who taught me how to punch Braille in cards. They were very, very patient with me. I also made a presentation to a group of teachers who were enthusiastic and responsive. I finished the day by walking through the Old Stone Town to a mosque where I prayed. I stopped on the waterfront to have some fresh barbecued fish and vegetables. I was on a small island with people who shared my faith, my convictions, and accepted me openly for who I was. I am working on a new dream.