African Monkey Business

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Once, when I was working for Pan Am in Liberia, in the west of Africa, 
we lost a monkey in an airplane.

Staff party at the Director's house. Pan Am Robertsfield team. My boss, Mr. Kassimu, bottom left.
Hassan next to me, and King next to Kassimu. Catering chef in white.

We found the cage. 
It was empty. 
We took that plane apart - but - never found the monkey.

Between searches for missing monkeys. 

For years afterwards, if things went wrong at the airfield, we blamed it on that missing monkey:

"Missing supplies? Probably that monkey." 
"No radio contact? Monkey probably ate through the wires."  

The monkey was easy to blame. 
Everyone saved face.

There was a small zoo in Monrovia, the capital and main city of Liberia. 
There were pygmy hippos, snakes, ant bears, parrots - and 3 mischievous chimps. 

Pygmy hippos are awfully cute. Young ones about knee-high!

One day, one of the chimps got out of his cage. 
He began running through the small zoo, opening cages and letting the other animals out. 

He was all excited, having a great ol' time.

You can see the chimp, up on the top of the cage.

As the chimp approached the leopard cage, we all held our breath. 

But chimps aren't stupid. 
He didn't open THAT cage. 

Instead, he jumped up on the top of the enclosure. 
He just - walked around, driving the leopard inside crazy. 

These days, with covid, those episodes come to mind. 
Sometimes, things are just not entirely within our control. 

Once we understand that - it makes things easier.

Drawn by Erik Rempen

How to deal with a virus? 
Lockdowns? Schools closed? 
What about visits to old people? 
Mental health issues? 
Travel restrictions? 
Who knows?

Chiles are used in India to ward off djinns - wonder if they work on a virus?

Sometimes there aren't any real good answers.

Analog tools. Good for lockdowns. 

Our job right now? 
Staying in good spirits for those around us. 

And - the third African monkey story: 

We were sailing our small catamaran 
(possibly the ONLY catamaran in the entire country of Liberia at the time) 
in a lagoon near a place called Monkey Island. 

So involved, we didn't realize we were standing amid dozens of sting rays.

We were watching the flocks of birds. Underfoot, dozens of sting rays. 
On one pass, sailing near the island, the boat got stuck on a sand bar. 

The chimps - big ones this time - began to wade into the water and head for our boat. 

VERY scary. Yikes. 

Dealing with monkeys - is ALWAYS trouble. 
You never know WHAT they'll do.

Kind of like djinns. 
Maybe - a virus, too.

When dealing with monkeys - or viruses -  the best response: A small glass of French wine. Maybe two.

Language Learning: Disaster in a German Kitchen

Rothenburg, not far from my university in Würzburg.

Early on, when I was learning German, I got a part time job. 
It was at the university kitchen in Bochum, Germany. 

I figured it would be a good way to practice my German.

They had tens of thousands of students. 
I worked the lunch shift, 12–3:00.

My job was "Trays". 
Placing lunch trays on a conveyor belt. 

Over and over.

I must have done a good job. 

After a few days, I was promoted to "Sauce". 
I poured sauce over the meat, with a ladle.

This ladle had a VERY long handle. 
The sauce cart was on wheels. 
It was about a meter deep. 

I had a pretty good rhythm going. 
Suddenly - I DROPPED the ladle into the sauce.

Deep. Gone.

Now what?

I wasn't going to reach down in there. 
And: I didn’t know how to say “ladle” in German.

(The German word for ladle, by the way, is Schöpflöffel.
-Even if I KNEW it, I couldn't pronounce it.)

So I did nothing. 

I hoped no one would notice.

Pretty soon, the students began to complain. 
The whole system—conveyor belt, trays, meat, sauce, veggies— stopped. 

They traced the problem back to me. 

I stood there, feeling pretty stupid. 

So they gave me a clean ladle, and a few dirty looks. 
A LOT of grumbling. In German. 

Soon - everything started up again.

But the next day, I was back to "Trays".

- Not exactly a stellar career move. Even if I did learn the word for ladle.

(From the book - Meanwhile, Back in Los Ranchos -)

Kenya: Dancing at the Starlight Ballroom in Nairobi

"My band is playing tonight. Starlight Ballroom,” Jomo said. “I’m drumming. Why don’t you come?
Starts about 9:00.”

The open door unleashed music into Nairobi's tropical night air as we paid our entrance fee. Seeing us, Jomo waved a drumstick from across a massive hall. Hundreds of swaying, laughing, pulsing black bodies filled the room. There were no chairs, no tables, only dancing.

We joined right in. The beat of the African Highlife music was irresistible. Lighthearted and hypnotic, the steady rhythm went on and on. There were no partners. Everyone just danced, hips moving, feet shuffling, heads swaying with the continuous beat. The spirit was contagious.

As I danced, I closed my eyes. Two singers in the band blended voices in two-tone harmony, singing the Nigerian and Senegalese pieces which always started on a high note and descended, sometimes in French, sometimes English, often indecipherable, and always compelling.

“It’s easy to find you in here.” My girlfriend Lisa laughed, as she danced past. “We’re the only white faces!”
It was true. Of the hundreds dancing, only my three friends and I were not African.

“I’ll be back,” I shouted in reply, and pointed toward the ladies’ room.

It was quieter in there, but still hot. The women wore skimpy tops and lapas, long colorful skirts. When I closed the door, conversations stopped. The small room was crowded, and smelled strongly of sweat and perfume. I waited for a stall, suddenly unsure of how welcome I was. The atmosphere became heavy. All eyes focused on me, either directly or surreptitiously. Finally one woman stepped forward and spoke. She took my hand in both of hers, and looked into my eyes. Everything stood still.

“Sister,” she said softly. “Thank you. Thank you for coming. Welcome.”
The others nodded and smiled, and began to talk again.
I returned to the dance floor, and my friend from the women’s room waved as she went by.
Smiling, I joined the dancers again.

From the book:

Meanwhile, Back in Los Ranchos

Three Odd Episodes in Spain

Adventure #1:
The Case of the Unpopular Rental

My first house in Spain became a rental house, since I wasn’t there often.
I had a local rental agent. It was in the town of Nerja, on the Costa del Sol.

The house was cute—beautiful views of the ocean, and the town was growing. 
But as a rental, it really didn’t seem to be doing well. 

The agent said it wasn’t a popular place to rent.
Every time I told him I was coming down to visit, the place stood empty.
(This was long before the internet or AirBnb.)

One time, without mentioning I was coming, I just flew down from my home in Switzerland for a weekend. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem, since no one ever rented the place anyway. I took my key and opened the door. A shirtless man with a beer in his hand answered.

“Who are you?” he asked, somewhat annoyed.
“Who are YOU?” I asked.

Well, it turns out the place was wildly popular, always full and always rented.
And I never received any of the money.

So much for my first rental experience.

PS: Yes, I did make a fuss. 
Yes, I did get some of the money back, after threatening to tell the story to the local newspaper. 

But - that was the END of renting it!

Adventure #2:
José Sanchez and the Stolen Toilet

During construction of that same small villa in Andalucia, I felt that the downstairs bathroom was awfully cramped. I mentioned it to the builder, José Sanchez, who didn’t seem to pay much attention. 
But my Spanish wasn't very good, so I thought maybe he didn't understand me.

The next day, I went into the house - and the bathroom seemed so much roomier!
- I couldn’t figure out how he had managed it - and so quickly!

Then I looked again.

It was only bigger because the toilet had been stolen.

My Spanish motorino - it worked - sometimes.

Adventure #3:
Impromptu Concert in Granada

We found a small guitar shop in the back streets of Granada.
They made their own guitars—Spanish guitars.

Stan picked one up and played a few notes.
The woman who owned the shop stopped what she was doing and disappeared.
She brought out another guitar, and carefully handed it to Stan.

A special guitar.

Stan played.

Soon, the whole shop was filled with people—other shopkeepers, neighbors, family—and two random Japanese tourists, all listening to Stan play. Some danced, some clapped in time.

Truly appreciating the music. One of those moments in travel when you KNOW- it's magic.

- The Japanese visitors probably thought this happened every day.

The Balcón de Europa in Nerja.

I had that villa in Nerja for about 20 years. 1980 - 2000, more or less.

In the early days, it was all farmland. Tomatoes, mostly. Donkeys carried the sacks to and from the village market. Roosters woke us in the mornings. The fishermen repaired their nets by the side of their painted wooden boats. The old women dressed in black, head to toe. No one spoke English. Life was slow.

Who would have thought that everything would become so popular, so modern, so international?

Everyone keeps telling us that - things change. 
But - we don't really understand it - until it happens to us. 

Haiti Adventures - and Banana Bark Rugs

 Haiti has been in the news recently.
A tropical country with a bit of a dark history. 

But I have a special place in my heart for Haiti. 

In the 1990's - we created a rug factory in Haiti. 
From just - ideas. 

I'd met a couple of Haitians at a trade show in San Francisco. 

My company was known for creating unusual contemporary rugs. 
Rugs made out of jean selvages, leather, cork labels, sisal, recycled silk saris --- we were probably the most innovative rug company in the US - maybe anywhere - at the time. 

So - my partner Wolfgang and I went to Haiti. 

Brainstormed with the Haitians. 

What local material could we find in Haiti - and how could we make rugs out of it? 
How could we create something - special? 

We found it.

We called it "banana bark". 

Which is of course ridiculous, since banana plants don't have bark. 
When one banana plant produces fruit, it dies, and another plant comes out of the ground.

 They're more of a grass than a tree. Technically, they're an herb. 
(Or a berry, depending on who you ask.)

Whatever their classification, Haiti has plenty of them. 
Expired banana plants.

But - you can weave almost anything. 
And you can weave what we called - banana bark.

We found an old textile plant. 
The looms were still in there, unused for years. 

We got permission to refurbish the looms and rent the space. 

We began experimenting with weaving the 'banana bark'. 
It was possible.

Villagers began collecting the old banana plants, mostly in the area around Cap Haitian. 

They were paid - on the spot - by the kilo.  

This was very popular.

Just getting the truck up there was surprisingly difficult.

We began weaving. 

It took a lot of trial and error. 
We were all learning together. 

Everything had to be hand-finished. 

We added a bit of imported New Zealand wool to make it a little more interesting. 

Then, of course, we had to import them into the US.
And warehouse them.

But - they were COOL

Thick, luxurious natural rugs. 
In several styles and sizes.

We called them "KONTIKI". 

All made from - natural waste materials, more or less.
"Biomass", as my neighbor called it. 

They sold like hotcakes. 

Not in the discount stores, either. 
They were a high-end item. 
Our customers were upper-end furniture stores, like Neiman Marcus in New York. 

Soon, they were a success story - and we were supporting over 400 Haitians. 
It also gave us a reason to visit a beautiful - if extremely poor - island.

On one visit, we went to the local church (our 3 Haitian partners, who owned a company called "Universal Hands". All went to the same church.) 

One woman took my hands in hers and said, "Thank you, sister. For what you have done."  
One of those moments - mildly embarrassing and very touching - at the same time. 

A friend of ours, Lawrence Peabody, 
- "of the Boston Peabodys", he told me (?) - 
was one of our designers. 

He also had a home in Haiti. 
A splendid tropical home, filled with art.

One evening, Lawrence invited us to his house for dinner - with the American ambassador at the time, William Swing. Oddly, I knew him. He had also been US Ambassador to Liberia when I lived there in the 1980's. He was brought in just after the Liberian Revolution. (I thought he was probably a good man in difficult countries. Plus he spoke fluent French and German.)

An unlikely and odd coincidence. 

Anyway, the rugs were a success. 

The whole process was intriguing. 

photo by "Happy Man Photography"

Haiti reminded me a bit of Liberia. 
Almost as chaotic. 

In fact, maybe even worse. 

Even after living 4 years in Liberia, West Africa, the amount of disorder in Haiti was impressive. 

Mountains of trash lined the incredibly pot-holed streets. 
The trash collectors were on strike, protesting the government. 

The pavements were so broken they weren't just uncomfortable, they were completely impassable. Traffic was ridiculous. Solid. 

Our partners used shortwave radios and walkie-talkies to communicate with each other - which roads were passable, which weren't. 

It was during the time of the 'handover' from Cédras to Aristide and his party. Public opinion was bitterly divided on it. Voodoo - which is recognized as a religion in Haiti - was a strong factor in the 'return' of Aristide.

Meanwhile, nothing worked.

No phones, sporadic electricity, little power.

If political turmoil wasn't enough, Haiti has frequent hurricanes. 
Plus, in 2010, there was a massive and devastating 7.0 earthquake. 
Then - cholera. And more hurricanes.

And yet - some of the most original art anywhere is found there. Painting, metal sculpture - wood work - Original, colorful - and full of story and life.

Haitian art - painting, sculptures, metalwork - is wonderful.

On the other half of the island - the same island - is the Dominican Republic. 
Two entirely different countries. 
The Dominican Republic is Spanish speaking. 

And much wealthier.  

So - another episode in a special island country. 
Glad I had the opportunity to experience working there.

Wishing them all the best -  - from the bottom of my heart - with their next episode.

Travel by Train - Venice Mail Cars to Russian Night Trains

The train was Italian.

We were 4 backpackers.
About 17 years old.

Heading to Venice from Lugano, Switzerland.

It was the early '70's.

(It wasn't this train. The TEE was way too fancy for us. But similar.)

Every seat on the train was taken. 
The aisles were packed. 
It was hot. 

We pushed through the train cars with our backpacks.

We came upon the MAIL CAR. 
Bingo! No one there. 

Were we allowed to be there? 
Probably not.

We closed the door and made ourselves comfortable on the huge sacks of mail.
Windows wide open. Sprawled.  Heaven.

Backpacks tossed on the floor of the train.
The entire car to ourselves. 

The BEST seats on the train.

And so we traveled. 
In complete unofficial luxury. 

To Venice. 
For the first time.  


Ah, Venezia! Che bella! -Maybe not the pigeons.

That was my first real train trip. 

17 years old. I was hooked.

The alternative was hitchhiking.  I was 17 here, and freezing. Home was a tent.

I still book trains whenever I can. 

This summer, I found a sleeper train from Paris to Berlin.

A Russian train. In Paris. Going to Berlin!
(It wasn't easy to find.)

We had 2 friendly Russian conductors.
Just for our sleeping car.

No English.
No French.

-They spoke a little German.
Brought us tea in fancy mugs.

Our Russian train conductor. 

In Berlin, it's asparagus season - and family time!

Then - by train on to Prague.

I'd last been in Prague in 1984.
Still behind the "Iron Curtain".

At that time, it was echo-y and empty.
Foggy and a bit medieval - melancholy.

Totally mysterious. Mildly intimidating.

Prague. Now a popular destination. Everyone on cellphones and using English. 

That was 1984. 
Prague has changed - dramatically.

Other memorable train trips?
Sleeper trains in India. 
Weirdly, one of the best experiences.

Sleeper trains in India. In the evening, they make up your bed with fresh sheets and pillows.

The Nilgiri Hills. In southern India.

Heading north on a train through Malaysia with friends met in Singapore. 

Night trains in China - with signs telling us to "take care for our treasures".

The Glacier Express in Switzerland.
From St. Moritz to Zermatt, across the Alps.

And: the most bizarre of all - 
The "Bamboo Train" in Cambodia.

Whatever we were expecting, it wasn't this:

How the Bamboo Train works- and a Myanmar train that BOUNCES in Shan State  - here.

Unexpected neighbors on a train. 

Even in the USA. The Southwest Chief, from Albuquerque. 

There's just something infinitely cool about train travel.
I still love it.

The pleasure of being able to just watch the scenery go by.
Reading on a train.
Being able to talk to other passengers a bit.
Walking around a bit. Sleeping.

Then, not having to park or wait for a jetway to appear.
Just - grabbing your bag and - stepping off at a station.

Waving good-bye.

On to the next adventure.

Just - grab your backpack and - GO. On adventure!

And yes, we DID eventually make it back to Béziers. 
In spite of train strikes. 

By train.

Béziers train station - on a non-strike day.

Nice to be "home", too.