11 December 2018

African Monkey Business

View on website.

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. 
Stopped. 

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.

17 November 2018

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 -)

15 November 2018

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

18 October 2018

Storm on the Canal du Midi-!


You wouldn't think that a mild-mannered canal would ever get too wild, would you?

This is La Redorte during the recent storm.



It's a town just up the canal from us.

We cruised Maggie May through it last year at this time.


This is what La Redorte looks like normally.

The restaurant is completely destroyed.
Lost everything.

All wine into the canal and down the river.

There are hundreds of stories like that.

Our region got hit with a MASSIVE storm.
From Carcassonne to the Mediterranean.

Several rivers overflowed.
Some breaking banks into the canal.

The canal, being higher, enthusiastically rushed down into the rivers.


That WAS the road - between those 2 narrow lanes of trees. 

Water levels in Trèbes - another town along the canal - rose 8 meters in 5 hours.

That's over 26 FEET-!




Bridges out.
Roads washed away.

Extensive flooding. 
Rescues. Dead and missing.

A disaster.

The view from our boat - normally.

Fortunately, our village was just at the edge of the storm.
Also, there are no major rivers near us.




But this is what it looked like during the storm.
(The waterfalls reminded me a bit of Norway...)




And Maggie May -? 
Not a leak.

Cool.

There was so much damage to the canal banks, weirs, locks and bridges -
they've closed down the canal.

Until "at least" next spring.




After the headlines are gone, everyone is left to clean up the mess.

And what a muddy mess it is.




So how did we wind up on a canal boat in the south of France?

This wasn't really the original plan. 

Part of the story is here:

How This Sailing Stuff got Started.

And - why?
One of the reasons is here - the social life.

Or - things we've learned: Boat Life.

What's it like - living on the canal -
in summer?
in autumn?
in winter?


What's the surrounding area like?

How to deal with friends and family on board a boat?


What about cruising in other places in France?

The Lot River?
The Yonne and the Nivernais in Burgundy?

And what about the brother with the wine cellar in Bordeaux?




 Here's hoping that things get back on track quickly.

For everyone affected by the storm.


05 September 2018

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.  

Magic.


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.






21 August 2018

Norway. Sweden. Finland (a bit of Berlin, Denmark and Estonia)


It was a good plan. 

In the hottest months of summer, we'd head far north. 
- Escape the heat of southern Europe.

To Scandinavia.




Land of moody mountains and windswept waterways. 

- I pictured sweater weather on lonely fjords - 




- misty mornings in a lakeside cabin -





However - Europe had other plans.

Scandinavia decided to have a record heatwave.



Summer shirts instead of Nordic sweaters.


A "Tom Sawyer" style raft.  Beating the heat in Copenhagen.


These are countries not used to hot weather.
There's no air conditioning.

Not in hotels.
Not in trains or buses.

Usually the windows are (painfully) not even designed to open.




It was HOT. 

And - I'm not even going to talk about the bedbugs.

With that disclaimer behind us, here's what we found:

Some things I didn't know about Scandinavia until we traveled through.
Via trains, ferries, bus, bikes, boats.

In fact, did you know they actually put WHOLE TRAINS onto a ferryboat?

And sail it across the Baltic Sea?




They did that for our trip from Hamburg to Copenhagen.
Son Erik said they did the same when he went from Berlin to Malmö.

That was a first for me.

Apparently, there used to be train ferries between England and France.

In the Baltic, they're still used, and quite common.
And efficient.

Who knew?

The whole area is so filled with water.
Lakes, seas, rivers, islands, whole archipelagos, so much water.





It's heaven for anyone interested in boats. 
All sorts, all shapes.










Harbors and marinas aplenty.

Helsinki - one of many harbors.


Water taxis and ferries everywhere.
And - they're big!

I thought these were cruise ships. 
No, just ferries.




In Norway, when we told the ferry captain that we lived on a boat in France, he handed the controls to us. 

Let us drive the ferry down the fjord.




It was early morning and there weren't many passengers.
Or other ships.

How cool is that?

(Neither Stan nor I were particularly good at keeping it straight.
But there really wasn't much traffic.)




The fjords in Norway DID fulfill my image.
Misty moisty mysterious mountains tumbling into cold water .

For a few days, it was even jacket weather.


They make cheese in this town - one of the farmers was our taxi driver.


Did you know that Norway is the richest country in the world? 
Unlike most places, they don't spend it.
They save it. 

The sovereign wealth fund in Norway is the largest in the world.

That's not per capita.
(they only have 5 million people). 

So people don't REALLY have to work.
And many don't.





Norway itself runs almost entirely on renewable energy. 
Yes, they make all their money selling oil and gas, and investing in oil exploration.

But Norway itself stays "clean". 
The Norwegians seem aware of the apparent contradiction.


Norway is spectacularly beautiful.


I asked our Norwegian friend why there weren't more people out sailing on the lakes.

It was perfect weather. Summer.
There weren't all that many boats out. 

She thought about it and answered,
"I think maybe we have too many lakes for not enough people."

- Cool.





At one point, we rented bicycles in the Swedish lake district.
(Yes, more lakes. More water.)




Farms and fields and the usual Swedish red houses.  
It felt like a Carl Larsson painting.




There were wild blueberries to pick.




Which - wound up mysteriously - on my birthday pie!


My grandmother's family was from Sweden. My grandfather's from Norway. Happy birthday, Trish!


Other than blueberries, the best meal anywhere in Scandinavia is easy:
Salmon.

Smoked salmon.
Salmon steaks.




Other fish too.
(although burgers were oddly popular-)

But - the salmon was exceptional.
On one day, I had salmon for all 3 meals.

Just so you know:
If there is bread and salmon at a Swedish buffet,
the salmon always goes on the white bread.
Not the rye.

(-There are a lot of unwritten rules in Sweden.)




Alcohol is government controlled.
It can only be sold in government-approved stores.
It's surprisingly expensive.

But sometimes an exception can be made for beer.
- Not that anyone goes overboard...

(Now that I live on a boat, that expression finally makes perfect sense.)




Did you know - you have to wait for your host to lift his/her glass to say Skøl before you can drink?

And - you NEVER clink glasses when you toast in Scandinavia.

 It's just - not done.
Another unwritten rule.




Outside Stockholm there are over 30,000 islands. 

That's right.
The Stockholm archipelago.





The ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki or Tallinn takes 3 hours to sail through them. 
3 hours! A huge ferry! 

That's a LOT of islands.

I had rented a small wooden house on one of the islands for a week.
A tiny house.
A tiny island.

With a tiny dock and a tiny rowboat. 





Next door, a tiny old Swedish woman who had grown up on the island.

She spoke with such a wonderful lilting accent.
A bit like the Swedish chef on the Muppets.




The Swedes are big on equality.
But - some of the houses on this island were sure a lot more "equal" than other places we'd seen!


That's just the boat house. 


Everything manicured and perfect.
And splendidly beautiful.




Everyone with a boat.
Or three.
Just 40 minutes from Stockholm.

For us, our "tiny house with a dock" was just perfect.


Always take your shoes off in a Swedish house. Another rule.






Another thing I hadn't considered when making these plans for Scandinavia.
Cruise ships.

Apparently, cruise ships are VERY popular here. 
Since it's a very pricey part of the world, being on a cruise ship is a good way to control costs.

However, these huge ships even come up the fjords to tiny towns.


Look at the size of the town! And the size of the boat! 


There were cruise ships in every port.

In the mornings (and in evenings) the streets were ours. 


Tallinn, Estonia, by morning...


But - by 10 am, the cruise crowds arrived. 
And the streets were packed.


Tallinn by afternoon.



Copenhagen during the day.


On the subject of Finland:

Did you know the most famous Finn seems to be a small fat creature called a Moomin?
I read Moomin stories to the kids when they were small.


Moomins are still around.


Also, I thought that this particular restaurant chain must be very popular. 
There were so many with the same name in Helsinki!

Then I figured out that "Ravintola" means "restaurant". 

Oops.




A couple other things I learned: 
The Norwegians are proud of their heritage as fishermen and farmers.


Scandinavians like their flags - on walls, roofs, cakes, pet bowls.


 (and maybe a few proud Vikings)

They enjoy the folk-tales and old stories.
Traditional costumes.

Festivals. 





The Swedes, in comparison, think it's mildly embarrassing.
They prefer being modern.


This is about as "folksy" as Sweden gets. Very tidy.


(By the way, did you know that "Bluetooth" was named for a Viking?
King Harald Bluetooth. 980 AD)

Helsinki is expensive.
Alcohol is particularly expensive.
And - Finns like to drink.

However, Estonia is just a 2 hour ferry away.
And in Estonia, alcohol is cheap.



And they like saunas. There are more saunas than cars in Finland.


So - the ferries run often.
And there is a LOT of serious drinking.

Impressive, world-class drinking.



Stan. Looking Estonian.


In Tallinn, drinking locales go all night.
They promote themselves as "where parties go to die".

(which I THINK is supposed to mean "party heaven")





In Helsinki, all the signs are in Finnish.
And in Swedish.

But - Finnish is related to Hungarian.
Go figure.

- This certainly makes reading maps a challenge.

And the Danes? 

Apparently, among Scandinavians, the Danes are considered the Wild Bunch: 
companies hire Danes to come in if there is restructuring to be done-!


After spending time in Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen, Lillehammer, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn, this comic by Mikey is surprisingly spot-on: 

Courtesy of Itchy Feet Comic.

Speaking of Mikey, did I mention we started the trip in Berlin?




And ended it - back in France.




So - 5 new countries for Stan. 
2 new countries for me.




New experiences.
New people.

- Even if it WAS hot.

It was also - pretty cool.