Friday, November 30, 2007

Friends Like These

A friend went to Antarctica and South Georgia last year on the Nordnorge—the same ship that picked up the passengers from the sinking M/S Explorer. When I went, I'd gone only on the Antarctica itinerary with GAP, not on the extended version. Probably because I was paying for it out of my own pocket while my friend was on a junket.

I have a minor Endurance/Shackleton obsession, so my friend kindly bought and sent me this postcard of Shackleton's grave on South Georgia Island.

Which was wonderful of him, but it would be a little more wonderful if he hadn't written on it: "I've been here and you haven't. Ha."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I've packed my paperback copy of Sally Watson's book "Jade" to take to work today.

It's for Kraiger to give to his 9-year-old daughter.

I was about 9 when I read this book and I loved it. I used to check it out over and over from the library, devouring it and imagining being the heroine.

Jade is a teenager in colonial Virginia. She is rebellious and refuses to live by society's repressive rules for girls. She ends up becoming a pirate and joining the ship of famous female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read. This was utterly believable to me at the time. Of course a young girl would be a fencing expert, join the pirates, and only fight to free slaves. What could be more credible than that? And what a great fantasy for a 9-year-old girl!

Reading it now, I have to laugh at Jade's sneering at boys and her brash attitude. "He was a boy, and of the ruling class and race, and everything was to his advantage. Oh, I hate men!"

This made perfect sense to 9-year-old Marie, who had no trouble at all envisioning herself fighting slavers with a pirate sword.

I'm sure it will make sense to Kraiger's kid too.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Things Are Looking Up

This is my fortune from 2001, from a Wat Po (Bangkok) numerologist who gave me nearly identical fortunes a year apart.

He may or may not have some insight into the future, but at least he has a system. Looking at the way he's written the numbers, it looks like 37 and 38 were special, and 39-41 were bunched together for a reason. Maybe that reason was that those years sucked. 42 is looking up.

He told me some things that were just plain wrong: I am spiritual. I am a good singer. He also told me I was going to be famous in my own country "as a writer," will live into my eighties, will have a car accident at 43, will be successful in business, like to travel, and will have two children.

I'm guessing he's a bit hit-or-miss on a few things, but I'm game to go with "like to travel." Amazing that he could pick up on that, no?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fun & Games with Greyhound

"No, I understand what you are saying."

Last night, I was talking to a bright-eyed, earnest young Greyhound bus lines employee in the Washington DC bus station.

"You are saying that although we all have tickets for the 7:15 p.m. Greyhound bus, we will not get on a bus until 10 p.m., and even then maybe we won't. I understand perfectly what you are saying. But here is what I am saying. I have a ticket. Look, it says 7:15 p.m. I was here early. So were all these people. All 300 of us have tickets for the 7:15 p.m. bus which you are saying has only ten seats. What I am saying is that I have a ticket and I want to go home."

Exasperated, with the kind of look an airline employee gives to an uncooperative passenger that is about to be approached by security, the lovely young woman responded with an eye-roll, as if she were addressing a moron.

"If you pay an additional five dollars, you'll get priority seating on the ten o'clock bus," she chirped.

Eff that, I want to be halfway through with the New Jersey Turnpike by ten o'clock.

There was a minor eruption occurring around me. I wasn't the only one who wanted to get to New York.

"If you can't honor my ticket, can I get my money back?" I wanted to get out of there and go to the train station before these other 290 people got there, especially given that in a minute, the young worker likely would need security.

Why on earth would you sell 300 tickets for a bus with ten vacant seats? Is Greyhound run by idiots?

"You can get a refund but there is a 20 percent penalty. The bus is first-come, first-served."

I subdued my natural inclination to tell her that's a stupid policy and ducked out of the crowd-of-fury as the shrieking reached fever-pitch. Let the masses try to argue the madness of policy with Ms. Logic-Is-Not-My-Middle-Name. I was headed to Customer Service.

I'd thought myself clever when I'd discovered that the Greyhound was the same price as the Chinatown buses. Only $35 round-trip. Well, I can admit I was wrong. Next time I'm taking an independent coach. Maybe even the one with on-board wi-fi. I'd only gone down to DC for the day, to meet my family for a post-Thanksgiving meal. The outgoing trip had run 20 minutes behind. I'd thought that was inconvenient. So was having to catch the 5:45 a.m. World Trade Center PATH train since trains run so rarely on weekend early mornings.

But this! Outrage.

I tried to calmly address the woman behind the counter.

"I have this ticket for 7:15 p.m. I was here early. I want to go to New York, and now they are saying the next bus which might have room is at ten. Is there some other bus, to Newark or Philadelphia?"

The ticket agent looked at me like I was crazy. She looked at the steaming mass-of-fury that had lined up behind me.

"Whoever told you that is wrong. Get back in line. Other buses are coming."


About 20 minutes later, I boarded the fourth 7:15 p.m. bus to New York and off we went, roaring towards the Turnpike.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sinking Ship

The M/S Explorer—the Little Red Ship—is sinking, or perhaps has already sunk. Near Antarctica.

That's GAP's ship! I went on the inaugural GAP Antarctica expedition, which revolutionized the region for backpackers and budget travelers. That was before they bought the Explorer, so I wasn't actually on this ship. My expedition was on a rent-a-ship, a cruise run by Quark Expeditions.

According to my GAP brochure, this should have been right after the South Georgia section of the "Spirit of Shackleton" itinerary, which ends on Nov. 29. So the tourists would have been following in the footsteps of Shackleton, heading from South Georgia to Antarctica.

Astute readers familiar with the story of Shackleton will remember that he too lost his ship.

GAP does strive for accuracy.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving to Remember

Some of my favorite non-traditional Thanksgivings:

-In 2001, I was thrilled to have a chicken dinner on a sleeper train from Aswan to Cairo. (It was Ramadan and I'd been in sub-Saharan Africa for months prior.)

-In 2004, the best I could come up with in Barcelona was a chicken dinner at IKEA.

-In 2005, my mother, sister, and I went to see the new Johnny Cash movie for Thanksgiving.

And in 2007, after a fantastic dinner with friends at Old Devil Moon, Michael Kraiger and I went to see Blade Runner.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Let's Learn Arabic!

Yasir's blog made me laugh yesterday. He found a warning sign in Cairo that said "MANHOLE" in English. Then above it were Arabic letters that spelled out the same word--not whatever the translation would be of the word "MANHOLE."

Maybe there isn't a translation. Like the names of our comics. We just translate them literally. Except the X in X-Men. There's no X in Arabic so we just write the English letter.

Let's take a look. You can learn some Arabic letters too. Remember to read right-to-left and don't worry about the missing vowels. Think of it phonetically, "N" sounds like "EN," and "L" sounds like "EL."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

More Lost in Translation Moments

Today's e-mail from an editor/translator in Egypt:

"Dear Marie, in Cartoon Network magazine in Powerpuff Girls, the Rowdyruff Boys are worried about cooties. Marie, please, what is a cootie?"

Eww, girl (boy) germs! That's universal if you are under the age of 8. A bit tougher to explain to a woman in her early twenties.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Kampala Looks Like Peace

Last night I saw a marvelous movie, a documentary called War/Dance.

In 2005, a group of kids from a primary school in Northern Uganda went to a national dance competition in Kampala. Which in and of itself may leave you going "So?"

But if you've been reading this blog for a few years, you might recall me referring to the situation north of Murchison Falls. Or maybe you've read of the peace negotiations happening between the LRA ("Lord's Resistance Army") and the Ugandan government. You might remember when a Ugandan friend's father lost his life to the LRA, or when the owner of the lodge at the center of the park I was staying in was shot by rebels. Both of these events also occurred in 2005.

One striking thing about War/Dance is how adeptly it contrasts brilliant green landscapes and gorgeous sunsets with tales of brutality, murder, and abduction. Night is when the LRA strikes, and so the sunset—such an innocuous thing of beauty to us—is a herald of yet another night of fear to villagers in rebel-harassed regions. The closest the filmmakers get to explaining the rebel's actions is when one of the kids goes to interview an imprisoned rebel. The kid is looking for his abducted brother, but he cannot stop himself from asking "Why?"

Another contrast is between the kids in their zombie-like states when they talk about the atrocities they've seen versus their huge smiles as they perform. Their instructors force them to smile. "Mood! Mood! Mood!" And they do smile, and then their moods become real, bringing these victims of trauma back to life, leaving behind their despair. Emotions long suppressed bubble up. One even says that he is "excited to see what peace looks like" as they set off for Kampala.

The challenges these kids have faced perhaps make their anxiety about the competition easier to endure, but also encourages them to work harder. They have more to prove.

And they succeed. They all pile onto the back of Isuzu trucks, travel under military escort down red-dirt roads towards the Ugandan capital, and they perform beautifully, triumphantly, at the National Theatre in front of their skeptical southern counterparts.

Their point?

Northern Uganda is not just about war. There are people there too, people living their lives and aspiring to dreams in spite of nightly terror. They may be living in fear, but they are not only about fear. They too can dance, live, and marvel at the sight of sand on the shores of Lake Victoria. The children return home, changed but not changed, going back to the same situations they left behind. But they also have hope and ambition. War/Dance is based in a tragic environment, but ultimately it's an extraordinarily hopeful film.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Elephant Safari

So why exactly was I riding elephants in Nepal in the last entry?

It was an elephant-back safari in Nepal, with the intended purpose of searching for rhinos.

This is the most marvelous way of seeing rhinos. I've seen them on walking safaris (terrifying but exhilarating), vehicle safaris, and from benches near waterholes. But the best way of seeing a rhino is from the back of an elephant.

The rhino is apparently not too terribly clever, and when he sees and elephant, he thinks "Hey, an elephant. That's normal." He doesn't notice people sitting on top of the elephant. So you can get really close to the rhinos and they don't even care that you're there.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Lesson in Humility

While on the topic of elephants, there is a right way and a wrong way to board an elephant.

In the photo above, these elephant riders in Nepal are cleverly using an "elephant embarkation platform" for their elephant embarking and disembarking needs.

Quite a sensible approach.

But here, this foolish woman (um, me... mortified) is stuck on top of the elephant's trunk during a bareback riding experiment with Nikki. She'd been bareback on Indian elephants loads of times so she said "Join me, it's easy."

"Just put one foot here where he's hooked his trunk, and he'll swing you up here with me."

It did not really work out that way. How embarrassing.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Are the Elephants Friendly in Burundi?

My pal Craig has put up his Burundi photos here and here and here. Also here and here. Have I mentioned lately how much I wish I had gone on that trip? I mean aside from the first ten times.

Meanwhile, I pressured Stuart to make a Dr. Livingstone joke in one of our comics, which takes place in Zimbabwe. But I take no responsibility for the superheroine petting a wild African elephant at the end of the story. Maybe I should add a line. "Look, this one is friendly!" "Maybe it's responding to the empathy inherent in your super-light power! Elephants are wild animals and you should never approach them, missy."

Just a quick reminder as my civic duty: I don't care what you do in India or Nepal, but when in Africa, DO NOT PET THE ELEPHANTS.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Last Look at Oz (No More Wallabies!)

I was the lucky recipient of extraordinarily good luck on two fronts during my most active travel years.

On the peace front, I was lucky enough to go through Pakistan and Iran in 1998. Through Zimbabwe before the crisis got truly bad. Through Sudan at a time of relative calm. Through East Timor post-war, as one of the first tourists.

On the prosperity front, the US dollar was at unprecedented heights when I went around the world. When I lived in Australia, I got almost double for every dollar I spent.

Which is why I was able to splurge on things like catching a helicopter back from a snorkeling excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.

Visiting the giant pineapple was even cheaper.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Wallaby Week: Saturday

Had enough wallabies yet?

While you've been subjected to mini-kangaroos, I've spoken to a pal's comic book class at School of Visual Arts, moved seven percent of my savings out of dollars, avoided going to the gym twice, had an annual (insured) physical, and shared hummous with other perplexed expat-returnees. "What do we do now?" No one ever has an answer.

I'm a better expat than I am home-country-resident. As an expat, life feels like a glamorous adventure. But coming home—after the first week in which you are bizarrely thrilled with things like automatic washing machines—is returning to problems you may have tried to ignore and the mundane daily routines. It's like culture shock in reverse. I've always said coming home is the second hardest part of long-term trips abroad.

The first hardest part is the colossal organizing feat that one must execute prior to departure. Or at least it used to be. These days, I can do that part in my sleep. But I'll never master the art of seamlessly inserting myself back into normal life.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Wallaby Week: Friday

Abby is looking disinterested and a little tough in this shot.

An older woman looked pretty tough today at the bus stop. I was hanging back, not wanting to cut in front of the line of people boarding the crosstown bus on 14th Street. She noticed my hesitation, then firmly grabbed me by the shoulders and steered me into line and aboard the bus, chortling at my surprise.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Wallaby Week: Thursday

I came home late from Tim Leffel's Hungarian wine tasting event (where I ran into Max and Kent as well as Kelly) and forgot to post my Wednesday Wallaby! Here's Abby, a day late.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Wallaby Week: Tuesday

Abby is looking peeved that I forgot to leave food on her plate.

Oh, and I was on TV for about 2.5 seconds this morning.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Wallaby Week: Monday

After going through a lot of books on Australian animals, I decided that Abby must be a "swamp wallaby." Notice her handsome "swampee" snout!

In other news, the hijinks on the PATH train continue. Last week, my shoe nearly went to JC without me. Today, the train was so packed that I could barely squeeze onto the car. My hood got caught in the door. I had to grab and pull furiously to free my hood, and when I suddenly succeeded, I accidentally socked myself in the jaw. In front of a hundred or so people.

Which was bad enough, but to make it even worse, I have a cold, so I sneezed in a crowded train. The air was thick with disapproval.

Much nicer to think of wallabies. Their sneezes are cute.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Wallaby Week: Sunday

It's Wallaby Week!

As some of you know, I used to live in rural Australia. This was for parts of 2002 and 2003. I couldn't stay for more than three months at a time due to visa issues.

While in northern NSW at Turbo's place, I habituated a wallaby named Abby. (Her boyfriend was Wally and her kid was Joey. Not sure what we were going to do next season. Josephine?) I fed Abby mangoes and guinea pig food.

We also had a family of kookaburras that we fed raw meat to, but that was Turbo's project. The wallaby project was mine.

In the above photo, Abby is nibbling a pulpy mango. Yum!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

New Pakistan Album

General Musharraf of Pakistan announced a state of emergency today.

I can't claim to understand all the nuances of the issues in Pakistan. This country is not at war, but it wasn't the calmest place in 1998 when I went through it in a Dragoman truck, on an 8-week overland trip called "The Great Asian Journey." There were plenty of security problems then, and that was before 9/11.

Terror wars, drug wars, the former British Empire, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan--this is right next door to the front lines. Throw in economic, educational, urban vs. rural, and religious disparities. Mix with government trying to strike a balance between domestic factions and international demands and it gets complicated indeed.

I was inspired to scan in some of my Pakistan photos this morning, since I assume it's off-limits for touring for now. Have a look.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Happy Mileage Day

Henry the 1990 Ford Taurus had a big event occur last weekend.

His odometer turned over to 150,000 miles.

Turbo and I acquired Henry in Torrance, California, for a thousand dollars on my birthday in April, 2002. Henry had been a fleet car and had new tires, a sun-bleached matte finish, and 100,000 miles on him. Why did we get a Taurus? Because when buying a used car, picking one according to your zodiac sign is as reliable a method as any. That and I had heard somewhere that old Tauruses were reliable. Or maybe that was my opinion of myself. We called the seller in Torrance from Don's house in West L.A. And when we saw Henry and heard how he purred and, uh, worked and stuff, it was love at first sight.

Henry does a lot of sitting in my single-car garage for months on end these days. I don't own my own home, but I bought a house for my car.