If only there had been a video camera present—I would have gone viral on YouTube. Imagine. I am exiting my car, heel catches, I plunge to the concrete—along with the gallon of milk, pint of Dulce de Leche and cell phone I’m holding—full weight on my left elbow. I lie there in a pond of milk sobbing in agony as I try desperately to stretch my functioning arm far enough to push my phone out of the milk (you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do when your contract isn’t up yet). Not a pretty picture…but funny…in retrospect.
This clumsy episode, which required surgery and the insertion of a plate and some pins in my elbow, has unfortunately delayed my trip to the Balkans. But only by a couple of weeks—so now I am back to planning. HOWEVER I am discovering a sense of vulnerability never experienced before. Having only broken a toe in lo these many years who knew I was breakable in more profound ways.
I question the doc, ‘I will be able to lift my bag into the overhead in a month won’t I?’ ‘Oh, I think so’ he responds. I take that to mean for sure and move forward with changing my airline reservations. But there is just the smallest doubt in my mind…
Tripping through the streets of old Europe—I think tripping, as in stumbling forward, possibly all the way to the ground, instead of walking with a happy spring in my step. Dark and mysterious border crossings in the middle of the night—I think extra bag lifting and walking instead of ‘oh yeah, I need this experience in case I ever write a spy novel.’ Jostling crowds of weekend evening celebrants—I think, ouch, what if somebody hits my elbow too hard instead of ‘just look how all of these religiously diverse Bosnians are happily partying together in the streets….’
But mostly I am healthy and practically INvulnerable and will be fine over there:
Writing oneself out of vulnerability is a good thing—if not necessarily realistic. Actually experience has taught me that most people are—one on one—decent, welcoming and helpful. It is only when religion or politics enter the picture that the dark irrational scary cruel tendencies come into play—among us all. On with the show then!
The idea is…if I work very very hard at writing interesting blogs and take many strange and wonderful photos for your viewing pleasure, surely someone among you will find a way to come and rescue me when I run out of money in Podgorica! …That was a trick question to make you check and see whether such a place even exists.
Here is the itinerary for a trip that will either prove I can do this every-country-in-the-world thing—YES I CAN—or that I started this project a bit late in life and might have to settle for every country in…say…Europe.
It all began when my friend, Andreya, told me he was performing his new dance in Zurich in August. I said ‘I’ll be there’ because I like both Andreya and his work very much and would like to bring this new dance piece to Albuquerque. And besides I had enough frequent flyer miles.
Next I said to myself…well Switzerland is the one country I have not been to in Western Europe but flying all that way to add one new country to my list is simply not good enough.
Then it occurred to me that this would be the perfect time to get those pesky principalities/kingdoms/little tiny countries out of the way. I had managed Luxembourg and Monaco back when I was a princess but there are three more: Andorra, Liechtenstein and San Marino. Okay. Done.
I peruse my new National Geographic Atlas of the World just in case I’ve overlooked some small place that could bring me up to five countries on this jaunt. Well, look at that, San Marino is just up the coast and across the Adriatic from Albania (Croatia too but I’ve already been there) so maybe that could be an inexpensive way to add a fifth country. I check and a one way crossing is about $75 and all night in a deck chair. I can do that.
I’m sure you can guess where this is going. I feel like one of the TV hoarders…only it’s all about countries instead of Tupperware or teddy bears. I think about money, about how much vacation time I have coming, about stamina, and about loneliness. Usually when I travel there is eventually a meeting up of friends at a far-flung festival. This time, after Switzerland I will not know a soul. But I am not deterred by these few conundrums and I continue planning.
From Albania to Macedonia to Bulgaria to Kosovo to Montenegro to Bosnia & Herzegovina to Serbia to Romania to Moldova. Or to use the stranger and more romantic sounding city names: Tirana-Skopje-Sofia-Pristina-Podgornica-Sarajevo-Belgrade-Timisoara-Chisinau-Bucharest (two cities in Romania). Guess the tiny countries and Switzerland have slipped off my route. Next time.
The basic itinerary is done. Three and one-half weeks. Cheap hotels. Bread and coffee and a bit of wine or the local plum brandy along the way. Many hours on buses and trains. I’m furiously reading history (very bloody) and Lonely Planets (very picturesque).
I am excited and challenged and eating pancakes right now to gather strength for the journey.
Is there really something wrong with me? I love my family and a few friends. I’m interested in the goings-on of quite a few people I know and many I don’t know. My job’s decent, my apartment’s fine, my health is probably above average. I just returned from a generally pleasurable 10-day East coast trip with a granddaughter. My clothes are washing and the walking pain in my left knee is easing.
AND, as we speak, I am packing for my next trip which begins August 24th.
I will go to every country in the world before I die. I WILL.
Recent blogs have focused on family journeys. The kind where you visit people and places and the kind where you celebrate lives lived and now over. NOW it’s back to the ‘every country in the world’ task I have set for myself!
Yes, I am packing for an August 24th trip but I am not mad…it is a trip to 12 or so countries and I am doing it all by bus and train with ONE rolling suitcase/backpack. So I am following some advice I once read which said to pack everything you must have with you a few weeks before you go, remove half of it, carry the suitcase with the remaining stuff around the block a few times and then make your final cuts.
My new suitcase is an REI Stratocruiser 22 which can be used as a backpack and has wheels. It seems ideal for this crazy ‘backpacking for the elderly’ thing I’m doing. I will take two jeans, four shirts plus hoodie, sweater, pajamas and underwear in addition to what I’m wearing.
Any traveler will tell you preparation and planning are frequently the best part of travel: More fun—as you imagine the exotic new sights and sounds you will soon experience; more stimulating—as you read travel literature, social commentary, and novels about the historical sites and national treasures you will soon visit; more controllable as you make those tidy lists of how much bus tickets, hotels, meals will cost, how much you can allot for tiny and light-weight but still meaningful souvenirs.
This adventure begins.
Nothing to do with travel but since the post ended up on this blog and since these women are two of my heroes it will stay. I wouldn’t be roaming around the world without fear if I hadn’t had so many examples of strong brave women in my life.
Lydia Jackson (my sister-in-law’s mom) and Grace Williams (my friend since 1972) died this week. Strong, important women who influenced generations of students and community activists. Lydia and Grace were both in their 80s with too many friends to count and daughters who do them honor by being the kind of brave and smart women—and loyal and attentive daughters—of which any moms would be proud.
Lydia was born and raised in Minnesota and never left except for a brief sojourn in Florida with family. She taught school for something like 50 of her 80+ years on earth. Her ex-students populate a big slice of northern Minnesota life and would all say they are better for having been taught by Lydia Jackson.
Grace Williams came here from Oklahoma by way of some other temporary locations but New Mexico was completely home for her and the politics of New Mexico her life passion. Her commitments to the ACLU (which she directed for a number of years) and the Democratic Party were well known and widely admired, certainly by her fellow Democrats and maybe by more than a few Republicans.
Both of these women were dedicated family and community members but they lived life on their own terms as well. If anyone had tried to take Lydia out of the classroom or Grace out of party politics they would have had an unwinnable fight on their hands. These were opinionated women—about education and human rights and, it would probably be safe to say, Lydia could be a trifle stubborn on occasion and Grace more than a little outspoken…especially if George Bush’s name came up!
Here’s to Lydia and Grace then. Two of my heroes. To lives well lived.
Sara, my 12-year-old granddaughter, was with me in Washington DC when Lydia and Grace passed away. While she is an excellent student (Lydia would be proud) she has only the normal amount of kid interest in history museums and political institutions—that would be little to none. Sara has a long life ahead and whatever her interests and passions turn out to be, I hope she lives it as well as Lydia and Grace lived theirs.
My fortunate grandchildren have first-rate parents and just the right mix of grandparents. The one with the pool, the one with the lake, the one who made all of the special party decorations and the one who especially encouraged sports and studies. And then there’s me. Trying desperately to infect them with the dreaded ‘travel bug.’
This is my first big trip with Sara, 12-year-old honor roll cheerleader tumbler tweenie. The trip began with a meeting in Boston and a few hours to get a bit of a feel for one of the places where it all STARTED—the United States of America that is—on to NYC for a day and a half of where it all IS and finally here in DC for a Capitol Fourth—just Sara and me and half the rest of the world celebrating who we imagine ourselves to be.
BOSTON: We left Albuquerque a week ago today—Sunday. Some brief airline rerouting…but into Boston in time for a walk down to the Harbor and a very nice little pizza of flat bread, arugula, grilled smoked chicken, goat cheese, fresh tomatoes and caramelized onions—Sara’s first venture into gourmet pizza!
The next two days were occupied for me by meetings at the NEFA/NDP headquarters in Boston while Sara set herself up with books, iPod touch and drawing materials in a cozy little spare office—only coming upstairs for food to take back down to her lair.
We did manage an evening walking about the Commons and Boston Gardens with spaghetti and risotto at a hip little Beacon Street restaurant. Sara thought the spaghetti was ALMOST as good as her dad’s.
BAD New York: Tuesday evening at 6+ PM, we left Boston on the train for Grand Central Station where we were scheduled to arrive around 10 PM. All went well until around the half way point when we lost power and came to an abrupt halt. An engine problem, the announcer said, to be fixed by trusty Amtrak mechanics shortly or we would be pushed into the next station by a substitute engine from somewhere up or down the line. It was dark by now but the only panic came from the loss of power for all of the iphones, ipads, itouches and other istuff. The book-worms on board crouched at the end of the cars where emergency lights made reading barely possible. While the power lasted Sara played games on her itouch angled in such a way that light was cast on my book page—hence we survived the emergency.
Into Grand Central station about 1pm. Fortunately we have hotel reservations I say to Sara. The Milford Plaza near Times Square. Sounded okay on Expedia and only about $200 a night. If it sounds too good to be true…..
IT IS…this was bad. Remember it is 2AM. Sara lives in Albuquerque, has traveled to smaller cities and to her cousins in San Diego but this is her first moment in THE CITY. It’s supposed to be exciting…not traumatic! The cab drops us off and right away we both know…this lobby does not portend good things…you know that sort of tawdry look…like something shiny covering something dirty. But we still have hope. Down the long dirty hallway. Losing hope. Open the door. Hope is gone. We sit on the bed…our last tiny tiny bit of hope is that nothing will bite us while we contemplate our situation.
Once, when my sons were small and we were returning to New Mexico from a trip to Minnesota in one of my string of miserable cars and, as usual, quite broke we stopped at a cheap motel in northern New Mexico—just too late and tired to drive on into Albuquerque—and entered a room somewhat like this. In all fairness to the Milford Plaza, the New Mexico room had an actual hole in the wall while here in midtown NYC, only the plaster was peeling off. But the level of cleanliness was approximate and that smell of haphazard cleanings with cheap and nasty cleaning fluids was the same.
In New Mexico all those years ago we took our suitcases and the family dog, which was of course along, and moved up the street to a brand new motel I really couldn’t afford (probably cost $30 or even $35!).
NOW I did the latter-day version of the same move. Called my American Express concierge and I finally feel justified in letting an AmEx rep talk me into the platinum card some months ago; now he lines up something for early check in the next morning, Ritz Carlton in Battery Park. That cannot be bad can it? Except for my budget. Then I called Expedia who immediately cancelled our second night in the Hotel from Hell. Phew! The worst is over and we managed to sleep fitfully for about four hours. Left the hotel without even showering before 8am and checked in to our new life—for 24 hours!
GOOD New York: Obviously the AmEx concierge wasn’t going to find a cheap hotel for us! But we do not care—for only $425 for the night we can take a shower without worrying about odd things pouring forth from the tap. Two BIG beds, a bathroom the size of my apartment, view of the Statue of Liberty…and a $100 credit for room service or meal. Of course I cannot afford this; on the other hand I certainly do not want to turn Sara away from a life of exploration in strange places. Since room service was part of the deal we had to try to use up our $100 voucher for a lunch…..turns out we are just not $100 lunch girls…much as we tried we only got to about $75. And this time Sara said her dad’s pasta was definitely BETTER.
A DAY IN THE CITY: Freedom Tower/911 Exhibit: Sara, let’s go here to see the 911 exhibit. What is 911? WHAT? I am stunned. How could she not know about the EVENT that so effects our communal psyche and military policy and foreign policy and ‘who we hate’ policy? She’s an A student in a good Albuquerque school. But then I thought…okay a generation is growing up NOT consumed by 911—it’s good I think.
The Met and the Alexander McQueen Exhibit: The Alexander McQueen exhibit was amazing!!!! It had so many weird outfits, but the outfits were beautiful! They had the stuff you would never think of! Many of the dresses he made Lady Gaga had! I bet she loves the stuff too! I hope Alexander McQueen had a great life, to me he had a wonderful life with his designs and money!!! This one dress was my favorite it was a gold dress/jacket and it was feathers! In the inside was a silk white dress! Another one of my favorites was a dress made out of real and fake flowers!!!! There were all different colors so it made it as pretty as can be!!
LION KING: OMZ!!!!!! The lion king was the best play of my life!!!!!!! I thought they wouldn’t tell the story just dance. But they actually did tell it! And in a beautiful way!! My favorite characters were the bird and Simba’s friends!!!!! I loved it and if I could I would see it 10 more times…haha!!! The lion king story was about a lion being born and sooner or later him becoming a king!! But when his dad dies his uncle tells Simba to run away why he did that was so he can control the kingdom! Later Simba has to find his true destiny to become king and to talk to his dad again!
The next morning was a bit anti-climatic. Sara was not actually so impressed by the Empire State Building. Too many people she said…boring she said. NYC was crowded and noisy and a little scary to an Albuquerque kid. Grand Central Station and a quick train ride to DC—SARA’S FAVORITE!
On to DC. A SARA ALBUM.
There is a trip to be made when I come home to northern Minnesota. It is about who I was and am, made to remind myself how important this place is to me. It is HOME.
Today’s journey: Grand Rapids on 2 and 46 to Northome, 71 out to the Old Place, then Blackduck (where I was born) for a hot pork sandwich for lunch, back to Helen and Barb’s for cake and coffee, retracing 71 to Northome and to the Forest Hill Cemetery, and finally home to Grand Rapids. Now drinking Baileys and checking in on MSNBC and the Wiener.
Grand Rapids is a pleasant little town on the banks of the Mississippi, which flows to Grand Rapids from its headwaters in Itasca State Park a hundred miles of so away, and on south to the Gulf of Mexico. We drive west and then south through a pine forest to Northome, the non-descript village, 7 miles from where I grew up. We go west again on Highway 71 to the Dead End sign that marks the gravel road down to the end of the road—formerly known as the Neset’s.
The ‘old place’ as everyone in the family calls it…sinking into the ground. Hey, the voices of the family and the smells of the roasts and pies and the sounds of the animals and the anticipation of the approaching rain or snow or hailstorm are all there. OKAY, so I am getting quite sentimental…always happens.
Lunch in Blackduck. Another small town of absolutely no distinction except that I was born there. We had hot pork sandwiches in honor of mom and pop because they always ordered them on the very rare occasion of ‘eating out.’
Helen and Barb Weeks. Dear dear old family friends. We’ve known each other since we were born. Back in the day—when people went visiting. Meaning you collected the kids and went to your friends where the men talked and talked and the kids played and the women sat in the kitchen while the hostess stuck a cake in the oven and laid out sandwich meat and homemade bread and jam and sweet pickles and butter and Kool Aid and coffee.
We often went to Louie and Helen’s. Louie may have been my dad’s best buddy. He was a natural-born humorist and often dad was his straight man. Now Louie is gone but Helen is as sharp and funny as ever (at 89) and daughter Barb who takes after her mom—sharp, funny and maybe a little sarcastic about life in general—lives next door and is her mom’s best friend in many ways. We enjoyed some talk of the old days, current ailments, evil Republicans, and the antics of the three dogs while we ate banana cake and drank coffee.
Back down 71 to Northome and the Forest Hill Cemetery. Hi Mom, Hi Dad, Hi Uncle Ike, Aunt Sally. Grandma Asborg, Grandpa Torgus. It’s all green, mosquito-rich, and fake-flower filled. It’s somehow reassuring to come here. My sons must dig a handful of my ashes down between my mom and my dad.
One Minnesota story per day…maybe. Today is about the wild dead deer of Minnesota and a sick dog! Buddy, Robert and Marsha’s dog has IBD, inflammatory bowel disease, for which there seems to be no cure. He has been to regular vets, specialist vets and holistic vets. Nothing so far has worked; the only thing they all agree on seems to be a high-protein diet that cannot include any easily available meat products. So the dog must have venison (occasionally turkey can substitute)…and one vet suggested kangaroo if the first two didn’t work! Robert and Marsha’s acquaintances have been pretty much tapped of any freezer stock of venison (leftover from last hunting season) at this point and Buddy is easily tired of turkey. What to do?
This morning, driving home from the vet’s where Buddy had a weekly blood test, Robert spotted some very fresh road kill, a recently dead (within the 15 minutes they were in the vet’s office) young deer. Dead deer are sprawled all about the highways of the north woods, victims of semi’s, pickups, old cars, and even new cars on the first trip off the lot. Deer are suicidal creatures that wait along roadsides for the sole purpose of leaping in front of unsuspecting vehicles. But in this case, it is all for the good of Buddy the dog.
Robert brought the deer home in the back of the truck, backed into the garage, laid the still-warm limp young body on the big blue tarp and started hacking and slicing. My brother used to be a hunter before enlightenment so he knows how to do this gory business. The sight is not so bad, no worse than NCIS for example, but the smell is horrendous, rank offal odors, bloodied hairy hide, warm flesh—like an African market.
The deer’s good parts have been cut up and are slow-cooking on a grill in the garage. I am drinking a beer called Nordeast, “Named after the hardworking neighborhood where the original Grain Belt Brewery established its roots back in 1893. ‘Nordeast’ is an endearing term which comes from the Northern and Eastern European immigrants and their language which helped shape Northeast Minneapolis. This amber American Lager is our way of honoring the storied past of Grain Belt and the people who helped to make it legendary! Cheers!” (from Nordeast’s website)
Lunch is served—hot dish, cold cream cheese-based pizza, sandwiches, sour cream raisin bars and ice cream…just a little something.
Tuesday’s tale from the banks of the Mississippi in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
The question continues to be…how to approach my last—of three?—big life tasks of these next (and last) 20 years. Before that it was all about raising children and working and paying bills and getting degrees; getting through all that is simply one big first half of life goal. Once that lengthy stage of life is completed individual, certainly more considered, probably more selfish, goals can emerge. My first goal of this new era was to be a better grandmother than I was a mother. In this I have at least succeeded in the travel department since I am working hard to get all grandchildren to distant places as often as financially possible. My poor sons were only treated to long rambles across country (which generally included many miles of Kansas and the Panhandle—sorry guys!) in wretched old cars with a dog or two sharing their back seat space.
The second of these three goals was to make a program something like Global DanceFest although I really was not aware of that as a major goal until now. Did that!
NOW for Goal Number Three: To go to every country in the world before I die. It seems that I have been working on this every-country-in-the-world thing since, at about age 5, I started obsessing over the photos in Essentials of Geography/Brigham and McFarlane/First Book, Copyright 1916 (I hasten to add I am not THAT old…it was my mother’s in elementary school.). In a cabin in the snows of northern Minnesota that book was my magic carpet to the outside world.
This goal and this ‘starter’ book have been mentioned in previous blogs. However, NOW, in the summer of 2011, it is really time to get serious. The first time it seemed likely that this pipe dream could actually become reality may have been in 2010 when I crossed the border into Burundi on the bus to Bujumbura and chalked off country #68.
Suddenly the whole idea appeared possible—far-fetched—but possible. 194 countries to go (I think that is counting South Sudan) minus 68 is 126. I can do this I said…I say. I work 10 more years and I go to 12.6 countries a year (during 3 weeks’ vacation time!). A goal. A reason to work and go to the gym and not eat too much butter. A reason to have a blog. SO HERE’S TO THE BOOK THAT STARTED IT ALL!
Saturday, April 9 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/world/africa/10ivory.html?hpThings are not good in Cote d’Ivoire which in its heyday was called “The Paris of Africa.” The battles between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara are turning into a civil war but there has been a low-grade battle between these parties for much of 2000s so conditions have already deteriorated to a new low for what was a prominent and successful West African city. Today’s Times brings more bad news after a week of battles which seemed to be leading to Gbagbo’s ouster. Not that the other guy is a prize but I suppose it says something that he was elected.
In 1999 and 2001 I went Abidjan to the Arts and Spectacle Market or MASA as it was known. The city was experiencing unrest and even a minor coup or two on either side of these events but the show did go on in those years. My notes describe a calm sunny city, friendly, good food, artists everywhere. I stayed at the Hotel Ivoire and saw my first African contemporary dance. Lots of it. Much of it powerful and original—some pieces like Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula , vivid and unforgettable however many times I see it. So, even though the city and country were fraying at the edges the dancing never stopped.
Paul Theroux has a brilliant piece in the Times travel section today. Why We Travel. And, as usual, travel addict Theroux gets it right. It is about knowing and feeling the places of the world as they are in good times and bad. He talks about being in Northern Ireland when it was dangerous and Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Columbia when they were on the ‘dangerous places to travel’ list and found all to be interesting and generally pleasant places to visit.
I have not been in dangerous situations but I have been in places considered dangerous. People say “should you go there now?” Like Theroux I do not imagine myself in Somalia at this moment in time…or Afghanistan…or Libya, but I do see myself in pretty much any other place on the globe whatever the exceptional or deplorable qualities of the food, hotels, transportation and weather, even walking in some of those holiday parades and political marches that are usually accompanied by a good deal of optimism or tension.
My travels have taken me to various African dictatorships but only once have armed soldiers aimed their guns at the vehicle in which I was traveling. And that was only because the African driver did not come to a full stop at the entrance to Mobutu’s personal theme park back in the days before Zaire became the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the new crooks and abusers came to power.
I followed the first political get-out-the-vote marches around Budapest, a rare gay rights march in Madrid and a protest rejecting Chinese takeover in Hong Kong. They were peaceful, celebratory actions and far more interesting than the local cuisine or most museums.
Crossing the border to go into—not being in—the West Bank and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was scary—not in terms of personal safety but rather fear for the future of a place where the hostility is so thick it can be cut with a knife—or shot through with a bullet!
This weekend I am thinking about Cote d’Ivoire where I spent a couple of fine weeks in 1999 and 2001. Abidjan was a big messy interesting vibrant city with troubles already looming (one coup and one attempted coup took place during this time) but not obvious to all of the African, European and American performing arts presenters there for MASA (Marché des Arts du Spectacle Africain). We walked around town, ate at the neighborhood pizza joint and bussed out to a village only slightly tarted up for tourists. All in all an ordinary visit to a new (for me) country. Now the war of Gbagbo versus Ouattara commences and Ivoirians will shoot and be shot at, go hungry, stop studying, get ever more used to the sound of bullets in the night. What I am saying is this: I travel because I want to ‘get it.’ The world brought to you live, not screened for your viewing pleasure. Abidjan is a real place full of regular people who eat pizza and don’t really want to die.
It is my birthday today. My gifts to me are the time and new maps necessary to figure out how to get to the125 countries I must still reach before I die. Because then when I am old old the very mention of a place, any place, will bring back a smell, a taste, a song, a friend, a sight, sound. And I will know what they are talking about. Because. Well read the article!
My sons gave me a new TV, my FB friends are brightening my day with many ‘happy birthdays’ but Paul Theroux gave me the best present of all…putting into writerly words the things I know about why I travel.
In Beirut some years ago feuding gangs murdered the sculpture of dead heroes. In a couple of weeks I will travel to Beirut again to see dancers dance their dances made for the Middle East and North Africa as it is NOW!