31 December 2009

going home

When I got off my plane in Minneapolis today, I checked the flight monitor for the status of my flight to Gone West. (This is what they say to do, right, "Check the status of your flight on a flight monitor."? Yes, right.) I followed the alphabet to my city name, and when I saw, "Gone West - delayed," I felt a jolt of homecoming. Not about the delayed part, although that is becoming a familiar sight (and it was only 30 min), but about the Gone West part. Oh, I thought, Gone West. I'm going home.

30 December 2009

30 Dec 09

We've been cleaning out the basement 'round my parents' place. Well. Trying. We spent an hour on it last night, okay? One entire hour, which ended when my dad started picking up random boxes and shoving things in my direction for my decision-making while I was trying to sort through other boxes, upon which I started (mentally) shrieking and flapping my arms and running in little circles. My ADHD couldn't handle it. So I proposed that we all give up and play cards, which we did.

I threw away many things that have sentimental value. Fine, everything has sentimental value to me, but I threw away quite a few of those things. One of the things I pulled out of a box was a little silvery bag filled with beaded stars. The wire running through the stars was rusty and they didn't sparkle anymore, so I ended up throwing them away, but it was hard.

When I moved to Rwanda 7+ years ago, my family sent wrapped Christmas presents with me. I woke up on Christmas Day, 2002, alone in a hotel in Kigali. I went to church at the tent church (where I made the mistake of giving my phone number to a couple of students, including one guy who proceeded to call me incessantly from a variety of numbers asking to meet me until I forced him to tell me what he wanted and he said he loved me and I yelled at him and told him I would change my phone number if he ever called me again. Keep in mind that I had met him ONCE. I think I gave him, and about four girls, a ride back to the university.).

Then I drove back to Kibuye alone. It was a beautiful sunny day in Rwanda, and I had only driven to Kibuye alone a few times. I still had to guess at the turn in Gitarama.

At home, in my house surrounded by pines, I decorated for Christmas with some pine branches and candles. I made a little Advent wreath. And then I called my family and opened the presents they had sent alone in my little house while they stood in a crowded dining room surrounded by noise. One of the presents I opened, wrapped months before in Michigan, was the little bag of beaded stars.

I wasn't lonely. Isn't that strange? I think if I spent Christmas alone now, I would be lonely. But I wasn't lonely that Christmas in Rwanda, the only Christmas I have ever spent away from my family.

I threw the stars away, last night, because it's just gross to hold on to rusty bits of metal, but there is a big part of me that wanted to keep them, forever. Cleaning, I happened upon so many things that I had forgotten, so many stories almost lost. I found scraps of paper that told of moments I had forgotten - a receipt on which I wrote while sitting on a pier in the Hudson River in New York, a carbon copy of an order on which I wrote while in a meeting in Rwanda. On one paper, I narrated the happenings at T. and M.'s house in Kibuye, one Sunday afternoon.

It scares me how the stories get lost. My stories, yes, but even more it scares me how the stories of my ancestors get lost. So many of them are already gone.

29 December 2009

getting somewhere

When I talked to my mom on Wednesday, she mentioned the weather problems in the Midwest and worried about my flights that night. “Oh,” I said, “I’ve never had too many problems. It will be fine.”

I should have learned long ago not to say things like this.

When I got to the airport in Gone West at 11 pm, my 12:30 am flight to Minneapolis, (which, of course, I had not checked before I left home) was scheduled to leave at 1:40 am. At 2 am, the airline announced that they had “just found out” that the crew had been flying for too long and the flight would leave at 12 noon.

I spent an hour on hold while waiting in line to be rebooked. (Thank you, Northwest Airlines! WORST AIRLINE IN HISTORY. If I could avoid you, I would. Too bad my family lives in the Midwest and you are sometimes unavoidable, although I do try to fly United instead. I just have to settle for saying bad things about you. By the way, forcing me to listen to Delta advertisements while on hold waiting for a NWA agent after the Delta agents told me they can’t help me because I booked through Northwest? Does not breed good feelings for either airline.)

I was finally booked on a flight to Other PNW City at 5:30 am, and an onward flight to Detroit thereafter. “We can’t get you to Grand Rapids,” the agent told me, so I figured my parents would have to drive to Detroit to get me.

Too bad there was fog in OPNWC. We circled a few times, watching the glow of the city lights through the fog and the sun rising over the mountain, and then headed off to Ye Little Town in the Middle of Nowhere, Northwest. The YLT airport did not even have gates. It had one door and an open area, and 75 of us sat there on hold with Northwest Airlines again (did I mention how much I hate this airline?).

I called S. and said, “I might be spending Christmas with the B. family in YLT.” (The K.s and the B.s grew up together in Gone West, and J.B. went to college with S. and me in Grand Rapids.)

“I’m sure they will take you in,” she said.

After an hour, they filled the plane with extra fuel for future circling and sent us back to OPNWC. Obviously I had missed my flight to Detroit. Once I was safely booked on the next one and added an onward flight to Grand Rapids, I set out to spend the entire $20 in vouchers that NWA had given me. I refused to let a penny of it go to waste – after all, they had taken away my entire Christmas Eve that I planned to spend baking Christmas cookies with my sister. I also bought a dorky U-shaped neck pillow. Come what may, after a night of sitting awake in the Gone West airport, I intended to sleep on the flight to Detroit.

By the time I got to Detroit, there was freezing rain over the western half of the state and my mom heard on the news that they were “trying to keep a runway open” in Grand Rapids. The girl sitting next to me on the plane was also trying to get to AZO, and the final plan was that her dad would drive to Detroit and pick her up.

Northwest Airlines HATES it if you try to ditch one of the segments of your flight. They want to charge you money. Lots and lots of money. It took us two customer service agents, but we finally found one who understood the part about I HAVE BEEN AT THE AIRPORT SINCE 11 PM LAST NIGHT AND IF THIS FLIGHT TO GRAND RAPIDS IS CANCELED, FITS WILL BE THROWN, SO JUST LET ME DRIVE THIS SEGMENT.

It only took me 22 hours to get across five flying hours worth of country. And in two days I get to turn around and do the same thing in the other direction.

23 December 2009


I have to leave for the airport in 101 minutes. I hope I don't leave my apartment in too appalling a condition, but given that I am sitting on the couch writing a blog post, things don't look too good.

My brain is having trouble accepting the fact that I worked today and now I'm going to get on a plane without sleeping between work and plane. I keep looking over at my bed and thinking of how nice it will be to crawl into it and sleep. Except that I won't get to do that for 8 nights. And tonight is going to be just 5 hours long on two different planes. I am not sure why I thought this would be a good idea, except that I have already taken so much time off work for Vietnam and Michigan and just, you know, wanting to take a day off work, that I couldn't afford to take any more time off and I wanted to spend as much time with my family as possible. Right now, it feels totally impossible. How can I get on a train to the airport instead of going to bed?

17 December 2009

cookie monster

S. and I made Christmas cookies on Saturday. It went pretty much like it always does, which is to say that we meant to start at 11 am but I didn't get to her house until 12 and she had gone to the farmers' market and H., her roommate, dropped a crockpot in the sink and sliced her finger open just as I arrived and after S. got back we spent half an hour deciding what to do and an hour and fifteen minutes going to urgent care for stitches and after that we still had to go to the store, which was crowded on a Saturday afternoon, and we forgot a couple of things, so S. had to go back in the store while I sat in the car and frantically crammed roasted red pepper hummus and cracked black pepper triscuits into my mouth because it was 3 by then and I hadn't eaten since breakfast and when we finally got to the K.'s house her mom was about to put other cookies in the oven and by the time we finished six recipes of cookies (five drop, one roll and cut) and I grumpily frosted the last of them with pain shooting through my back from all the leaning over, it was 12 am and freezing rain for the drive home and the frosted cookies weren't even dry yet, so I left them on cookie sheets on top of the C0rvette in the K.'s garage and it took S. until Tuesday to get them back to me because she kept forgetting them places and she texted me earlier that day saying, "I ruined the cookies," but it turned out that they were fine, it was just the way the glaze dried around the sprinkles.

So it was fun.

Now I have a freezer full of cookies that I just literally cannot resist. Trust me, I try. When I talked to A. earlier, she said, "You never have been able to resist the icebox cookies [our old family Christmas cookie recipe], have you?" I have resorted to keeping a cookie tally in my little notebook I carry around, hoping the guilt of marking, oh, ten cookies a day in the tally will slow down my consumption.

It doesn't. Christmas cookies are my nutritional downfall. Delicious white flour and sugar. It's a good thing they exist only three weeks per year.

14 December 2009


When we got out of the minibus in Phnom Penh, we were instantly surrounded by three or four guys with business cards of various hotels. The four others who had traveled with us had ideas of where they wanted to stay, which is really the only way to avoid the sales pitches, but S. and I were, throughout this trip, totally indecisive.

"Where do you want to stay in Phnom Penh?" one of us would ask, reading the guidebook.

"I don't know," the other would say. "What looks good?"

"Oh," the guidebook reader would respond, "I don't know. They all look fine. Didn't K. say she liked #11?"

"Yes, but she also said it had bedbugs."

"Oh, right. So maybe not that one."

And then we'd drift off and decide nothing.

Undecided, we were perfect targets for the touts. We looked at all the business cards they shoved at us and shrugged, and went with one of them to a guesthouse that advertised itself as having something like, "the longest veranda stretching out into the lake!" We followed the guy into a long wooden hallway over the water. "You know what this hallway screams to me?" I muttered to S. as we walked, "Cockroaches."

The room was mediocre. The floor was covered in the thin linoleum that never feels clean to me and it smelled musty from an air-conditioner used only when the room had guests and the toilet had no seat. S. and I stood in the room, deciding. It took us awhile (see, above: indecisive.) Finally she said, "You clearly don't want to stay here. Let's find something else."

Down the road, at the end of the tourist strip, we found a little family-run place with very little advertising, no business cards, clean cement floors, and a window offering a nice breeze. I was happy.

"You know," S. said, "with all your traveling in Africa, it surprises me that you can be... picky about where you stay." (In my defense, that was the first place I had rejected for cleanliness, mostly because it seemed like a place where I would wake up to cockroaches running over me in the dark. Ew.)

"I don't think being in a developing country means you have to be dirty," I said. "Cambodians don't want to stay in filthy places. Being willing to live in filth is a sort of snobbery of backpackers, because they think it's more authentic, but I bet the hotels that Cambodians stay in are cleaner than that one. My hotels in Africa were all cleaner than that. It's like clothes. Only the backpackers are wearing dirty clothes, not Cambodians."

It's oddly true, all over the world: rich Westerners take pride in being dirty when they travel, as if it makes them more authentic, while people in so many of the countries they visit take pride in being clean.

13 December 2009

border-Phnom Penh

Every once in a while, I accidentally lean my head back too far and pain shoots through my neck and I remember a very long minibus ride through Cambodia and how I was trying to sleep against the window and whenever the minibus hit a pothole, my head flopped around and then I was just drifting into sleep when we hit a huge pothole and my head whipped back too far and it's been hurting ever since.

There were quite a few tourist-type people on the ferry from Phu Quoc Island to Ha Tien, and six of us wanted to carry on to cross the border into Cambodia and head to Phnom Penh. The tourist office across the street from the ferry's arrival, er, flooded piece of land said that it would be $15 per person for a bus to Phnom Penh and the bus left at 3 pm, but given that there were 6 of us, we could make up a minibus ourselves and leave right away for the same price. So we did. There were a French/British couple, two British university students who had been volunteering in Vietnam, and S. and me.

We loaded into a nice plush minibus and headed the ten minutes to the border, which at Ha Tien is a large airy cement building with a luggage scanner inside, located on a paved road, and on the Cambodia side is two tiny buildings that you cannot enter with a wooden barrier across the dirt road. (The pavement disappears half-way between the two border posts.) Then we piled into a far less plush minibus (springs sticking up irregularly in the seats made for a veery long 5.5 hour drive to Phnom Penh) and started merrily off down the dirt road, under a clear blue sky, through the perfectly flat brilliant green rice fields. The occasional wooded hill rose at random in the distance.

After an hour or so, the bus stopped to pick someone up. We had paid for a bus to ourselves, but we said nothing, out of politeness and because you never know when someone's brother/sister/cousin/friend/mother/friend-of-a-friend/aunt/nephew/wife/in-law needs a ride. After a while, we picked up another person, and then another, and another, and pretty soon it was clear that 1. we were not getting the bus to ourselves, and 2. most of the original tourist-type people were somewhat cranky about this, as their comfortable sprawled-out space shrunk. I watched what the incoming passengers were paying ($4-ish, less as we got closer to Phnom Penh), and realized that, very possibly, the tourist agency in Vietnam had ripped us off.

The minibus continued to fill. The row facing backwards behind the driver filled up, and we rearranged our legs every-other, trying not to look directly at one another, since it is extremely awkward to stare at a person you do not know when their face is so close to your own and your legs are touching all the way along. Newcomers slid their bags of rice under the seat and one of the two women squished into the passenger seat held a baby. The tourists got crankier. The ride got longer every time we stopped. I got whiplash from the pothole and nearly whimpered at the pain of it, exacerbated by every following pothole. I didn't dare go back to sleep, but I was too tired to stay awake, after getting up at 5 am yet again. (Note: waking up before it was light: another theme of the trip.)

At long last, we got to Phnom Penh and started dropping people off. When everyone was gone but the tourists, we pulled into a petrol station and the driver said, "Here you are."

"Uh... where are we?" we asked. We hadn't the first idea. We had been told in Vietnam that the bus would take us right where we needed to go.

Or, it appeared, not.

"Just out of curiosity," the driver said, (except not quite in perfect English like this; I am taking liberties), "how much did you pay them for this trip?"

Of our $15 each, apparently $10 each got eaten in the 10 minute trip to the Vietnam border and the guy walking us across the border doing nothing, when we had visas and could have managed just fine alone. The driver on the Cambodia side, who drove us 5.5 hours to Phnom Penh, which seems like the biggest task, certainly requiring the most fuel, got $5 for each of us.

And he didn't know Phnom Penh at all, which makes sense because his route is border-city, not within city. We hauled out two different guidebooks for their maps, on neither of which we could find ourselves because we were not yet in the actual city, and after figuring out that we were on a main street that did, further into town, appear on a map (dear Cambodia: thank you, thank you, thank you, for putting the street signs in English letters as well as Khmer), I directed him to the street-o'-tourists using the Rough Guide map (never trust a Lonely Planet map; they are awful). Unfortunately, I did not know how tiny and narrow this street was, so we ended up stuck down it, causing a horrible traffic jam and din of horns and leaving the poor driver to somehow maneuver his minibus out of a barely-one-lane alley.

S. and I tipped him because we felt so bad that he had been forced to drive us all the way to our hotel without being paid adequately by the tourist agency, but I doubt it was enough to make up for his trouble.

09 December 2009


Mostly, when people ask me about my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, I say, "The food was amazing." It's always impossible to summarize a trip, long or short, in a few words, but this is true: the food was amazing. In the direst of lost-ness, in the middle of nowhere, at the cheapest of little food stalls, we had quite possibly the most delicious, certainly the most consistently delicious, food I have ever tasted.

We pretty much broke every food rule for traveling. We drank iced coffee with abandon, purchased on the street from a woman who held the ice block in her hand and banged at it with a hammer to create the shards that she put in our glasses. We ate lettuce just as carelessly, at a little table on the side of the road, using it to wrap up bits of lentil crepe that a woman cooked in a wok-like thing over a coal-pot, at a night market on an island, layering it in salad rolls with our fish and noodles. We ate fruit cut open with a machete on a boat on a tributary of the Mekong. We ate ice cream at every opportunity.

If there was nothing else decipherable on the menu, we ordered vegetables and rice in Vietnam, or chicken curry in Cambodia, and every plate of either was delicious. (Except that one time, when we went to an actual expensive restaurant in Siem Reap, where the curry was sickeningly sweet and I found a dead roach cooked into it after I'd eaten half of it. Stick with the street food, I say.)

I learned to eat with chopsticks, finally, tardily. I have avoided chopsticks for years. They hurt my wrist because I cling to them too hard, and I've never been able to pick up small things. Now I can. I can hold them lightly. I can pick up that last grain of rice, should I need to pick it up. I started to understand why people choose them over forks.

That is the overview. The food was amazing, and there were lots of motorbikes. Now, next time, for the stories.

(It's amazingly hard to get back in the habit of even turning on a computer after so long without one. It's good for me not to lose so many hours to the internet - I have a cleaner kitchen and I've gotten exercise every day - but it does not lend itself to writing here.)

07 December 2009


Flying in to Ho Chi Minh City, in the dark, around the edge of a typhoon, I watched the roads down below. I just wanted to figure out on which side of the road the traffic drove, but what I noticed were the singular headlights. Every light down there seemed to be alone. Either every car in this country has a headlight out, I thought, or there are a whole lot of motorbikes in this city.

We marveled, on the ground, at the sheer quantity of motorbikes. It was 1 am, and the streets were still full of them. "There are ten million people in this city," our taxi driver told us, "and five million motorbikes."

By day, when we woke to the noise and bustle of, for me, a whole new continent, we just stared. There really are five million motorbikes in HCMC, and I think we saw all of them. The guide books say just to pick your moment and start walking across the street at a steady pace, and it's really all you can do. You step out into traffic and hope that none of the hundreds of motorbikes rushing through that intersection at that moment runs into you. They flow around you like water. Oddly, there are very few cars, maybe 5 for every 200 motorbikes. The bikes go on and on as far as you can see, each carrying no more than two adults, each adult wearing a little round helmet but the kids, squeezed between them, are usually helmetless. "Maybe," I said, after we found out that there is a law requiring helmets in Vietnam but not in Cambodia, "maybe they give out the tickets to the person not wearing the helmet, and they can't give them to little kids."

In Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, the motorbikes are more crowded. Sometimes there are three or four adults on a bike. To cross the street in Phnom Penh, you wade through the motorbikes, start-stop-start as you see a little gap, instead of the motorbikes flowing around you.

Motorbikes were a bit of a theme of our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.

04 December 2009


I have the usual excuse for my disappearance from this space: namely, my computer died. I just brought it in for a little tuneup (okay, a new hard drive) and the next thing I knew the computer geeks were calling me apologizing for the fact that the connection between the computer and the power cord, after dying slowly for a long time, was totally gone, and it would end up being a $300 visit to the computer geek place, to fix a computer that was almost 5.5 years old and would only keep breaking down. That, they said, or I could buy a new computer.

$430 (that I didn't really have) later, I am rationing out my single $100 on which I have to live for the rest of the month. (No Christmas presents for anyone at all. Just forget about them. They are not coming.)

Now, it must be repeated - I know I've said it before - that I become irrationally attached to inanimate objects. It took a week for my new computer to arrive after I ordered it from the D3LL website, and I thought I would be so anxious to have a computer that I would open it and set it up immediately, but instead I opened up the box and then left the computer lying on my counter. Every time I looked at it, I felt vaguely resentful towards it for not being my old 1BM.

At long last, er, two days later, I finally managed to open the new, personality-less machine (it has neither stickers of African flags nor start-up foibles) and start to figure it out. My love for my old laptop was clearly fickle, because my resentment lessens each time the new one starts up in 30 seconds instead of 8 to 10 minutes. I do feel like I am betraying the old one, though. After all, it survived Liberia (barely, with a cracked motherboard) and Southern Sudan (barely, due to the heat), and brought me through law school and the bar exam.

The fact that I have not appeared on the blog in two+ weeks may actually be the only reason I finally booted up this shiny thing today.