Wednesday, November 17, 2010

London


In 2005, I received a phone call from a former student. He had returned to Saudi Arabia after receiving his doctorate, and was now running an Islamic school in west London. He needed someone he could trust to come help him with the academic programs at the school. It had once been a premier school, but had fallen on hard times.
A consultant had replaced almost sixty percent of the school's personnel the year before, and there was a great deal of confusion amongst the staff and students when my friend inherited the school. To make matters worse, the school was facing a national inspection, an arduous task for a well run institution. I was intrigued by the challenge.
I was working at a large university when I got the call. We negotiated a visit, as I would not commit to the job blindly. I went over for a two week visit. When I got to the school, I wasn't very impressed. The physical state of the school was depressing, and the building itself was large and sprawling, and not very clean. I met the new teachers on my third day, and the few returning veteran teachers a week later. They were an amazing group of people from at least twenty different countries. It was a good thing too, for the tasks they faced were very difficult.
The school had three main goals: 1) to change from the British curriculum to the IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum, 2) to stabilize the deterioration of the school (both physical and administrative), and 3) to pass an impending, very strenuous national inspection. To make matters worse, the Saudi embassy wanted accomplish all three tasks simultaneously.
During that first visit, I watched the teachers work together during their two-week professional development program. Most were very enthusiastic, and they were taking in a great deal of information - particularly the large group of new teachers. Towards the end of the week, I did some training on study skills, and they appreciated the sessions. I left on a high note, to return the USA and consider the position.
I returned to my job in September, and didn't hear back from the UK for a month or so. In the meantime, my department at the university was moving to a different college in the school, and I was negotiating a new contract with my new boss. It was the classic case of approach-approach conflict: two very attractive possibilities were brewing. On the one hand, I was reworking my current job with all sorts of creative possibilities, and on the other, I was considering a brand new position with some very attractive challenges. In the end, one school stepped up, and the other showed its true colors.
As I was trying to chose between the two jobs, I realized that I did not have enough information about the cost of living in London. I had consulted a tax accountant, and I knew the tax burden. I just had no idea about the rest of my expenses. I also needed more insight into the workings of the school, and to see how the initial changes were settling in. I proposed a second visit, and my friend gladly complied. Before I left, I conveniently let my new boss know about my second option, and gently challenged him to finish his proposal for my new role and salary. He also agreed. I had one week to see what would happen before I crossed the Atlantic again.
My boss came back to me with an offer two days before I was scheduled to leave, but there was a catch. If I accepted, I had to turn the London folks down at the end of my trip. He offered me $65,000, a new office, and expanded space for my staff and programs. It was a good increase, and I accepted. I went to London to tell my friend I couldn't take the position, but I was also scheduled to do some more training for him, so I didn't feel bad - I was still helping him. During my second two-week stay, I conducted an extensive needs assessment, interviewing almost all of the 100+ staff. I talked to parents and students, and did some more training for staff. In addition, I did a few workshops for the community. It was a very productive trip, and my friend was pleased with information I provided. I told him at the end of the two weeks that I had decided to stay in Akron, and he graciously accepted, telling me that if I changed my mind, there would be a place for me. I stayed an extra day to do and additional workshop on communication, then jumped on a plane. When I got home, I had a few interesting surprises.
A few days after my return, I went to a reception for a visiting scientist on campus. I met my boss for the first time since I had been back, and he had a funny look on his face. He pulled me aside and told me there were a few new wrinkles in his offer. I reminded him that I had turned down the other offer as promised, and he broke eye contact. He stammered on and told me that he could get me $50,000 in salary and maybe $15,000 more in stipends. That meant that my subsequent salary increases would be based on the $50,000 and that the other $15,000 was in no way guaranteed year to year. He then advised that I get friendly with the new Vice President (a political creature I did not respect) to help grease the wheels. I smiled at him, turned on my heel, went home and waited patiently until it was 8am in London. I called my friend and asked him if the job was still open. He said yes, and we negotiated my salary - he not only met my needs, he exceeded them. Sometimes the jobs decide for you.
I gave my one-month notice, and prepared to leave the place I had called home for the past 15 years. It was the right decision.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wadi Rum


This is my own private sand dune, kind of. I had the opportunity to spend two amazing days out in Wadi Rum, the desert valley in the south of Jordan. It is best known as T.E. Lawrence's (of Lawrence of Arabia fame) base in World War I. It is truly an incredible place, a place to lose yourself for awhile.
We arrived at Wadi Rum in the middle of the afternoon. As we were early, we were told we could take a foot trail to an original spring halfway up a mountain. We walked for an hour in high heat to find a little trickle of water bouncing over a makeshift brick wall - not a great start to our trek. We made our way back down to the camp and had some food. Shortly after, our guide arrived. He was large for a Jordanian, and very friendly. His English was very good, and we had no trouble with communication. He led us over to an open jeep, and just like that, we were off into the desert.
We stopped near the entrance to the valley to visit Lawrence's well. It wasn't much of a sight, but we understood its significance in that barren, arid place. There were other groups assembled there, and I wasn't very excited about the adventure at that point. After the obligatory visit to the well, our guide asked us if we wanted to drive out and look at some sand dunes before we made our way to the overnight camp. He let some air out of his tires, and we drove off into the sea of sand. It was the last time for several hours that we saw any other humans.
It is hard to explain what it is like to drive off into another world. In a few minutes, we had left all remnants of civilization behind us, it was like being on another planet (in fact many Hollywood movies are filmed there, including Red Planet, a flim about Mars). We made our way between massive outcrops of jagged rock separated by rivers of unending sand. He took us to several large sand dunes piled high on the leeward sides of the mountains. We took it all in from the open end of his jeep, knowing that we would explore the rock and sand wilderness the next day on foot.
It is somewhat overwhelming being in a place so open and yet so massive in scale. Nothing in Wadi Rum is not dramatic or stark or beautiful. It is welcoming and it is desolate. We drove for a few hours, then arrived at a Bedouin camp for the evening. We joined a few other tourists for a traditional meal and a evening of singing and dancing courtesy of our hosts. I slept like a baby that night.
The following morning we set out to explore some of the famous features of the valley. We climbed a large arched rock bridge, hiked through narrow valleys cradled between mountains, and ran down impossibly tall sand dunes. We had a light lunch at the foot of the dune pictured above, and stopped and had tea with a Bedouin woman in her family tent. It was a two day excursion in a land that needed little narration. I realized that Wadi Rum would not be a home I would choose, but that I would never leave it if I had raised there. There is a particular power in silence. Sand and rock are silent, very silent.
I look forward to returning to Wadi Rum. I look forward to just being there, lost in the expanse and silence. I look forward to it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Ill Never Again Board a Plane With a Giraffe on it!"


I have a great story to tell when a stewardess comes up to me and says "are you able to open the emergency door in case of an emergency?" I nod and say "well, I have opened one." I am sure they don't hear that every day.
In 2000, I was working for the US Peace Corps in Tanzania. The country is massive, and I travelled most of it supporting and training Peace Corps volunteers and their host country counterparts. We trained our volunteers in Arusha, quite a distance from my office in Dar es Salaam. I found myself flying back and forth quite a bit during their three month training period. It was on one such flight that I got to find out all I ever wanted to know about airplane safety.
It was near the end of the training period, and a coworker and I were to fly back to Dar es Salaam. Me made our way from the town of Arusha to the international airport some 50 kilometers away. The airport itself is near the Kenyan border, an attempt I suppose to draw business from both countries. It is nestled between Mt. Meru and Kilamanjaro, two majestic peaks. To add to the effect, the airport is on the very edge of the Serengeti. It is truly the most beautiful setting for any airport I have ever visited.
We boarded the 737 for our one hour flight. Our seats were just behind the exit row which overlooked the wings. As we prepared to taxi, I found myself morbidly watching the engine under the wing. I had flown hundreds of times, and I wasn't nervous, just watching that engine. We quickly made our way out to the runway, and the pilot instructed us in Swahili and English. I remember seeing a young Arab couple with three young children a few seats in front of me. The kids were having fun, and it was all their parents could do to keep control of them.
As the jet started to lumber down the runway, my attention was drawn back to that engine. It seemed to take forever to get going, and finally the front end of the aircraft began to nudge upwards. At that very moment, I heard a loud boom and saw a plume of smoke pouring from the engine. The next ten seconds felt like an eternity -the captain shut the plane down and locked up the brakes. We skidded for quite awhile, turning sideways. As quickly as it began, we were stopped at the end of the runway, the nose of the plane sticking into the grassy field that was never intended to receive a jet. Several of the oxygen masks had deployed and there was a strange silence. We all just sat there quietly. After a few seconds, the captain came on the loudspeaker and told us to evacuate in two languages. There was an urgency in his voice. When his voice faded, the pandemonium began. People started yelling and jumping over seats. My friend patiently stood up and got into the aisle to move back to the rear exit. I started to follow, a bit scared, until I remembered the family a few rows ahead. I tried to push my way forward when I noticed two people having a hard time opening the exit door over the wing ahead of me. I pushed two others aside and grabbed the door. It was harder to open than I had thought. When the door swung upwards, smoke from the tires poured into the cabin. This accelerated the madness around me. I suppose the passengers thought the plane itself was on fire. I stepped back to let people out, and a group of wazungu (westerners) pushed forward past everyone frantically racing to get out. I guess they didn't want to die in Africa, but I was surprised how little regard they had for the women and children around them.
I pushed forward again and reached the family. The father was patiently trying to carry a newborn while shepherding two young kids and his wife to the rear of the plane. I got in line behind them and followed them out. When we got to the back of the plane, we faced the daunting task of jumping out onto the escape ramp. I asked him if he needed help, and he said yes. He had me jump out first to then help "catch" his two children while he jumped with the baby.
I took my shoes off and jumped, sort of having fun. As I began to stand up, I felt a shooting pain through my shoulder - a European woman had evidently pushed past the family and jumped too soon with her high heels on. She rolled off of me and crawled screaming out onto the runway. I turned around and grabbed the two kids as they bounced down the ramp/raft. Once the family was all down, we walked a few hundred yards to where the other passengers were congregating. After about ten minutes, we were told we could go back on the plane to get our carry on baggage if we wanted to. I was one of only two passengers to take them up on their offer.
I learned that day that karma sometimes exists. Two of the westerners who had scrambled out the wing exit had been injured, one breaking his leg. They thought the plane was on fire, so they went out to the furthest point on the wing to jump. The wings swept up, and they had long plunge to terra firma.
We were taken back to Arusha, and those of us who still wanted to catch another flight later were put up in a nice hotel. I saw the crew come in the lobby and they were very shaken. I supposed we had all come very close to a terrible conclusion. My friend did not come to the hotel, she opted for a very long bus ride back to Dar es Salaam. When I asked her why, she replied "I'll never again board a plane with a giraffe on it!" I understood.
I had to wait three days for another flight. The official word was that there had been a tire blow out on take off, but when I returned to the airport, I saw the plane in an open hangar with my favorite engine removed. I would later learn that if the plane had gotten off the ground and the engine had failed, we probably would not have survived.
Fifteen years later, I was sitting in an exit row on a flight to California. The stewardess came by and was chatting with me. When she got around to her obligatory admonition about the responsibilities related to occupancy in an exit row, I agreed then told her I had opened a door before. She smiled and went on her way. Later in the flight, she came by and asked me where and when I had opened an exit door. I related the basics of my story to her and she got very excited. She told me that she taught safety to flight crews, and she had reviewed that very incident in her training. A small, small world.

Omega


I first met Omega in 1999 when I was working with the US Peace Corps in Tanzania. Omega was a language trainer, and was living in Arusha where we trained our new volunteers. She was a very bright and pleasant woman, and I loved to kid around with her. She was one of the best trainers we had, and it was fun to see her interact with the volunteers. Omega was also very pregnant at the time.
Although she was a Tanzanian, Omega was very accustomed to western ways. I liked talking to her, as she was eager to learn more of our idiomatic language. One day our conversation turned to her pregnancy, and she did not hesitate. I mention this now, as I would learn that many Tanzanian women don't speak of their pregnancy, and pretty much everyone around them ignores the fact. I suppose it has something to do with the high infant mortality rate, and it was just bad luck to talk about the pregnancy. I did not know this at the time. We joked about her condition, and she even let me touch her belly. Once again, she did not hesitate, and I knew no differently.
A month or two before her due date, Omega started to have difficulties. So much so that they eventually took her to the infirmary. Several of us went to visit her after a few days, and I was shocked at the conditions of her room. There must have been a dozen beds in a room 15 x 15, with a dozen women in various stages of pregnancy. It was obvious the bedding wasn't often washed, nor were the women. Anything they needed had to be brought to them by family or friends, the infirmary didn't even feed them. Omega couldn't leave her bed, so I had to weave my way into the room to stand beside her bed. She was as amiable as ever, but I knew she was having difficulty. We joked according to our custom, and I left. Instead of going back to my hotel, I went down to the local market. I bought a few dozen oranges and a dozen Toblerone candy bars. I went back to the infirmary, bribed the guard to let me back in (past visiting hours), and entered Omega's room. I gave her the oranges and candy bars and she distributed them through out the room. They were all grateful, and we spent a gentle hour chatting, mostly them laughing at my baby Swahili. I was glad I could take their minds of their pain and the miserable conditions of their room for a short time.
Omega lost the child a few days later. By that time, another language trainer had educated me about their customs regarding pregnancy and childbirth. To this day, the ugly notion that I had "jinxed" her pregnancy creeps into my mind. Rationally, I know that I had nothing to do with it. But it still tugs at my soul from time to time.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Eating at Al Capone's in the Sinai, on the Red Sea



It may not have been the best food I ever ate, but it certainly was my favorite meal in many years. I had this seafood feast in a small village on the eastern side of the Sinai called Dahab (Arabic for Gold). I was making my around the Sinai with a friend a few years ago. We took a ferry from Aqabah to Nuweiba in Egypt. From there, we negotiated (and renegotiated and renegotiated) with the driver to take us to the quaint diving village of Dhahab. Unfortunately, we shared the taxi ride with three Americans, two who were very obnoxious. Both my friend and I had lived all over the world, and we listened to one guy telling his new friends all about Egyptian culture. My friend and I just looked at each other and bit our lips. It was a long hour drive to Dhahab.
When we finally arrived, the village didn't look very impressive. There were a lot of rundown buildings, and dusty empty lots. We didn't know that the heart of Dhahab was a long,narrow strip right on the Red Sea. Once we moved from the center of the town inward, we understood the popularity of that small and intimate place. We walked on a boardwalk and came to a beautiful arched bridge. From the top of that bridge, we could see the restaurant and dive shop area laid out before us. There were dozens of beautiful restaurants, all built up on pylons extending out over the water. The roofs were thatched, and there was a lot of bamboo. We decided to find a hotel, then to wander down the lane to a good restaurant.
We had a bit of a problem finding a decent hotel. It was almost Christmas, and the town was crowded. We did manage to find one place with a clean room. We walked up from the lobby to an open roof area with brightly colored rooms. The courtyard looked out over the sea, and there was a nice breeze blowing in. It was the start of a very nice evening. After settling in and discovering there were no towels in the hotel, we sought out and found a small store and bought some souvenir Dhahab towels. We took them back to the room and headed out to eat. We had no idea what we were in for.
When we crossed over the bridge, we were bombarded with pitchmen standing outside each restaurant. We had decided to make a thorough reconnoiter to make sure we didn't make a hasty decision. The first place we passed was named Al Capone's Restaurant. They had tables out front of the dining area with fresh seafood on ice. We would be allowed to pick our food. The barker haggled with us and tried to physically pull me in. We gently refused and kept walking. We repeated that scene maybe a dozen times as we walked on. I made the mistake of telling several of them that I would come back. For the next day and a half, as we walked up and down the seafront, I was reminded of my promise by a dozen Egytpian hawkers. I just smiled dopely and moved on. That night, we eventually decided that we liked the first place we saw, even though it was named after an American gangster. When we walked back up to the restaurant, our friend smiled broadly and said "I knew you would come back, welcome, welcome." We then went through the process of selecting our food, and haggling for a price (the picture above is just one of the trays they served us!). We sat at the corner of the restaurant and looked out over a dark sea. It really was a beautiful setting.
When the food showed up, we were astounded. They had taken so much care to construct the foil decorations, and the food looked incredible. We didn't know where to start. We had fish, prawns, and other shellfish. There were ornately cut vegetables and potatoes. For desert, they brought out another elaborate plate with fruit and pancakes. As we ate, we threw scraps to a group of feral cats under our table. It really was beautiful evening.
Of course, the bill we finally received was much more than our original quote. The experience had been so fun, that we really didn't care. That night we took a stroll back down the waterfront (constantly admonished for my earlier promises) and looked at some tourist shops. We stopped by an artists studio and talked to the owner about his art. The weather was perfect, there were brightly colored lanterns hung everywhere, and the whole place had a peaceful ambiance. It was one of the most relaxing evenings I can remember.
The next day, after walking out to the seafront, we ate breakfast at one of the places I had promised to return to, then boarded a bus for a long journey around the Sinai up to Cairo. I think though, that I left a little piece of me at Al Capone's Restaurant.

Train Kept A Rollin


From the time I finished the 8th grade to the day I entered the 10th grade, I attended four schools in three states. For once though, the fact that we kept moving might have saved my life. For if we would have stayed at our third stop, Pontiac, Michigan I don't think I would have survived.
We moved to Pontiac in January of 1973. It was one of the toughest places I have ever been, and I was 14 years old. We only ended up staying there for six months, and I was relieved to leave. We had rented a rundown apartment in a depressed area of town. The neighborhood was mixed, poverty being the only shared culture. Before arriving in Pontiac, I had lived in smaller, less diverse towns. I had no concept of what to expect from that big city, and no preparation for what I would see.
I met some of the local kids the weekend before the first day of school. I remember Rodney and Timmy vividly, as it was their story that shocked and horrified me. To this day, I haven't heard someone relay a personal experience like theirs. And I would not care to. Rodney was a street-wise kid who was the leader of the local group of kids. Timmy, who had lost both his legs, was an affable guy who did his best to keep up in his beaten up wheelchair. They adopted me and shielded me from some difficulties while introducing me to worse things. I sometimes wonder if either of them are still alive.
I will never forget my first day at school in Pontiac. It was a very large school just for 9th graders. There were kids of all sorts, a few who made immediate impressions on me. My first incident happened an hour or so after classes began. I opened a door to leave a class and it hit another student in the arm. He was about six foot two, 185 pounds. He looked like he was 22, and had a big afro. I apologized and he just stared at me. I wasn't sure what else to do, so I turned to leave. As I walked away, a nervous kid walked beside me saying "Do you know who that was? That was Spade, the toughest kid in the school. He is 19 and only stays in school to sell drugs to the other kids." I had dodged a bullet. Later in the day, I met a very charming student named Clarence James III (or as he introduced himself, CJ the DJ). He took me under his wing and we agreed to meet at the art room after school. When the last bell rang, I made my way down to our meeting place. CJ was there smiling. He ushered me into the art room and locked the door after we entered. He then introduced me to the art teacher who promptly took out a bottle of wine from his desk and poured us each a glass. I wasn't sure where I was at that point, it was just far too strange to be real. I learned to avoid the bathrooms at the school, as they were filled with smoke, drug deals, and the occasional brawl. The girls all scared me, as they acted and appeared as if they were ten years older. The students were all very foreign to me. I do remember the one exception, a slight black kid who dressed neatly and carried a brief case. He didn't socialize, he just went to class, studied, and went home. I often wondered if his focus ever got him out of that place.
Rodney, Timmy, and I hung out on weekends with some of the other local kids. I soon learned that they all enjoyed drugs, and I really didn't want to go down that road, but I didn't want to alienate my protectors. I turned to alcohol instead. It was a crazy six months. We lived on the edge of the city, and there were woods and remote areas nearby. We spent many an hour hiding out there, doing whatever we liked. By that point, my stepfather would buy me beer whenever I wanted, so I maintained my popularity with six packs.
I had also met a pair of twin brothers name Brett and Bart Hartsoe (named after Brett and Bart Maverick). They were good kids, and I had more in common with them. One weekend, we planned on me staying overnight with them. Their parents said no, but the brothers snuck me in through their basement window. In the morning, their little sister came down into their room and spotted me. She must have been about three. To this day, I remember her exact words as she ran back up to tattle on us:
"Mommy, mommy, there is more than one head in Bart's bed." Great line, had to fit it into the story somehow........
Each morning, Rodney and I and a few others would walk to school, a distance of about two miles. When the weather warmed up, we exploited a new form of transportation, hopping a train that ran past our neighborhood and eventually the school. It was exhilarating to say the least, I had only seen it done in the movies. The train ran near the woods behind our houses, in between two large ponds we loved to fish in. It was so neat to run up to the train, grab anything you could hold on to, and haul yourself up. It was about a five minute ride, rather than the half an hour by foot. I really felt grown up doing that (looking back, I suppose I would have made a good hobo). I rode the train for almost a month before I eventually stopped abruptly.
We were over at Timmy's house one night, doing what we always did. Timmy and Rodney were taking drugs, and I shared a bottle of whiskey with Timmy's brother. Timmy had a high tolerance for harder drugs, a result of his double amputation I suppose. Strangely, I had never asked how Timmy had lost his legs, it just didn't seem necessary. That night though, it came up in the conversation, and Rodney told me the tale. Something that is still horrific to me, and if they hadn't pulled out the news clipping, I am not sure I would have believed them.
A year earlier, Rodney and Timmy were on their way to school. They were late, so they decided to hop one of the freight trains that passed the school. It was a winter morning, very cold, wet and slippery. Rodney boarded first, and reached back to give Timmy a hand up. Just as Timmy grabbed his wrist, he stumbled and somehow slipped under the train. Rodney heard the scream and jumped off the train. Timmy had fallen legs first, and the train had amputated both legs well above his knees. The next part of the story is the most incredulous, but once again supported by the newspaper article. Rodney knew he had to go for help, but that Timmy might die of blood loss. They were beside one of the ponds, and Rodney quickly fashioned a plan. He found a large stick and thrust it into the ground just inside the shore. He then dragged Timmy over to the pond, slid what was left of his bottom half into the half-frozen water and made him hold onto the stick. He took off his belt and wrapped it around Timmy's hands and the stick. He then made the eight minute trip back to his house to call an ambulance. Timmy survived, and Rodney was a hero of sorts.
That night, sitting on the couch listening to that story, was a turning point for me. I couldn't believe Rodney was still hopping trains, or that he was introducing new converts to that form of commuting. I then took a hard look at the rest of their life, and realized that no, it wasn't normal for 14 year olds to be doing drugs, and that I really didn't want to be in the environment. Luckily, my step-father got in trouble somehow, and we had to move. If we hadn't, I am sure I would not be here now writing this. I don't miss any of those friends, but I do think of that lone Black kid with the briefcase, praying desperately that he made it out, that he survived that treacherous place.
*Postscipt: Although I was only in Pontiac for six months or so, I did gain a notoriety of sorts. I came to school one day to find out that most all of the 900+ student body were looking for me. A local executive, Harvey Leach, had been found murdered (grusomely) in the woods behind our neighborhood. Somehow, it got out that I had found his body. It was rumored to be a mob hit, making it that much more sensational. It all died down after a week, particularly since I took no credit for it, but it was a strange week. Leach headed up a local discount furniture store known for its catchy commerical jingle. If you like, you can view it here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljb0-08HW1g