Friday, September 25, 2009
A Woman's Journey
Around the World
43 short stories, illustrated with 40 photographs
Living in the Australian Outback Horsing Around in Wagga Wagga Life Lessons from a Sheep Drover Flooded out of House and Home Honesty Really Does Pay RIP Tides in Malaysia Watching a Wayang Kulit on the Beach Wearing Snakes in Penang Trekking in Nepal Eating Out in India Bartering with Buddhist Monks The Dalai Lama’s Visit Regrouping in Benares Business in Agra Mrs. Colaco’s in New Delhi Mrs. Colaco’s Patio Bus Ride to Kashmir Kashmiri Mosque Festival Life in Kashmir Making Friends in Srinigar Weddings and Wars in Pakistan Driving Through the Kyber Pass Bargaining in Kabul, Afghanistan Pelicans and Bedbugs in Herat, Afghanistan Getting a Job in Tehran, Iran Making Friends in Tehran Almost Blown Up in Istanbul, Turkey Good People in Kythnos, Greece Mail Order Dating in London Praying on the Bus in Israel Living on a Kibbutz in Israel Hitchhiking Around the Island of Cyprus Culture Shock in Egypt Egyptian Justice La Tuna, Fun and Music in Spain Getting Groped and Grabbed by Moslems Making Friends on the Ferry to Morocco Fracturing my Wrist in Morocco War and Peace, the L.A. Peace Movement The Powers That Be in Prague, Czechoslovakia
I had to empty out my storage unit. In an old trunk at the very back I found an album my mother had given to me over twenty years ago. Inside the album were all the letters, aerograms and postcards I'd sent to her when I traveled around the world. Underneath the album was a box of negatives and photos from my travels, along with stacks of stories I'd written about my experiences when I returned home. I'd sold a few of the stories to magazines over the years, but hadn't really done anything with any of the material. Everything was finally activated when my friend, Laurie Corn, who co-produces a radio segment at KUSP in Santa Cruz, California, called First Person Singular, asked me to do a series of 90 second stories for her show. As I went through my travel stories and started editing them down to quick sound bites, I realized that they came out more intense and interesting. This book is the result.
In the 1970's, when I was in my twenties, I spent a year in England studying art at the Maidstone College of Art in Kent. I married a fellow student, who was English, who came back to the States with me to get his MFA. From there he was hired to teach sculpture at the Riverina College in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. Marriage wasn’t working out for me, so I gave my husband a year's warning that if things weren't better in a year I was going to leave. One year later I bought a one-way ticket to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and spent the next two years traveling overland through Asia, the Middle East, stopping to work in London for a while before heading to the Mediterranean and North Africa. I took $1,500 and when money got low, I'd stop and work at whatever job I could get. In Tehran I worked at a color processing place, in London I worked as an artist for a display company, in Israel I worked on a Kibbutz. What I saw and learned from my journey totally changed my life forever. Following are some of the stories.
Our living room in Australia
Living in the Australian Outback
Many years ago I lived out in the bush in Australia where my husband taught sculpture at the Riverina College in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Our landlord owned a dairy farm ten miles up the road but kept his pregnant cows and young poddy cows at our property, a two-hundred acre farm, so they could graze and not overeat his home paddocks (fields). The day we moved into the house I walked to the back fence to look at where it had been trampled down by the cows. They stood in a mob of about thirty in the next paddock, staring at me intensely. I stepped over the flattened fence for a closer look at them. Suddenly, they turned and ran directly at me. Alarmed, I leapt backwards over the broken fence and landed in a large, fresh, green, cow-plop. The cows ran up and stopped abruptly about four feet away from me, where they stood staring at me curiously. I let my breath out with a sigh and reached out to pet the nearest one. They all jumped away from me. When I tried to pet another one, they turned and ran out to the middle of the paddock and watched me from a distance.
The house was about 60 years old and had originally been built without plumbing. A water tank, used during the dry season, stood next to the back door and a modern flush toilet stood inside a small outhouse next to the tank. A fireplace in the living room was our only source of heat until we bought a smelly kerosene heater. A wood burning stove built into a kitchen wall was our only cooking stove until we bought a hot plate. Luckily, our landlord had installed a refrigerator.
The back yard had an orchard with fruit trees: plums, apples, lemon, nectarine, apricot and figs. The Murrumbidgee River wound gracefully around our house, beautiful most of the year, but dangerous during rainy season. Lining the fence around the house were trees with red berries that the local parrots loved to eat. Our house was located two miles off the main road into town, behind a government holding paddock. Holding paddocks were areas where drovers taking sheep or cattle to or from the market could keep their animals safe. These paddocks are always a day’s walk from each other. What it meant to us was that we had to drive two miles down a very dusty dirt road, and open and close two gates to reach our house.
It’s difficult to live on a farm in Australia without coming into contact with all sorts of animals. Cats, dogs, cows, sheep, horses, and snakes were common, but the birds were the most prominent. Thousands of cockatoos flew over our property and settled in the fields. Australian farmers are called “cockies” because of their never-ending battle with these smart, beautiful yellow-crested, white birds. Cockatoos can clear out a field of sprouting plants quite readily by just walking down a row and snip, snip, snip with their sharp beaks. Large flocks of pink and gray gallahs were also a common sight. Bright red and green parrots often visited the trees that surrounded our yard.
A pair of swallows built a mud and straw nest inside the alcove to our front door. I could sit on our sofa and watch the parents sitting on the eggs, then feeding the batch of five hatchlings they always produced twice each summer. I accidentally taught one group how to fly when, while trying to photograph them, I opened the screen door too close to their nest. They all let out shrieks and spontaneously flew inside the house, bombing me with their calling cards as they swooped around the room, then back out the door to a nearby tree. From then on that group would only return to their nest at night to sleep and kept a wary eye out for the door. In the cow barn where our landlord stored hay, swallows had been adding to their nests for many years so that the mud and stick structures were over five feet long.
Not long after we moved to our farm in Australia, I got a job as the photographer for the Riverina College, where my husband was teaching sculpture. One of the first assignments I was sent on was for an agricultural lecturer who had gotten a grant from the government to study meat processing. I had to go to the local abattoir and spend a day photographing the whole slaughtering process. I watched them wash down the frightened animals with high-powered fire hoses. I climbed up the ramp where the butcher waited, holding a gun that killed by shooting a bolt into the animal’s brain. I felt the fear radiating from the two cows that were herded into a metal elevator cage that moved them up to where we stood. The butcher playfully pretended to shoot me with the bolt-gun. When I gave him a dirty look, he giggled nervously then put the gun to the first cow’s head and pulled the trigger. The animal fell instantly, crushing the other terrified cow which struggled to get up. Another man leaned over and pushed the dead cow away. As soon as the other cow finally stood up the butcher put the gun to its head and shot it. The other man speedily tied the animals’ hind legs up with chains and opened the bottom of the cage. Within minutes they had been decapitated, skinned, disemboweled, sliced in half from top to bottom, and now looked like hunks of beef. The sheep were slaughtered individually, their heads held tightly between the butcher’s knees while he slit their throats. All this I photographed. The experience had such a profound affect on me that I haven’t eaten meat since that day.
RIP Tides in Malaysia
Late in the afternoon we reached the kampong, village, where we stayed for a few days. It was a quiet village of wooden houses on stilts surrounded by palm trees, situated along a beautiful, white sandy beach. We occupied the houses, three people to a building. On our first day we met the chief of the village and his wife. She sold us hand printed batik sarongs that she had made herself. They were attractive and inexpensive, so almost everyone bought at least one sarong from her. I wore mine as a bathing suit, native fashion. Copying the villagers, the women in our group wore their sarongs tied above their breasts; the men knotted theirs around their waists.
We spent the days lying in the warm, clear water. The beach was so shallow that when we walked out a hundred feet the water was only chest high. On my second day I walked down the beach, away from the others, and lolled around in the water alone, picking up shells and rocks from the bottom with my toes. I trapped air in my sarong and the material ballooned out, keeping me afloat. After a while, I noticed that I had drifted far away from where I’d left my sandals and towel. I started to swim back, but didn’t seem to be making any headway. I could see other members of our group playing in the water about half a mile away, out of hearing range. I continued to struggle, trying to swim back, but was only being pulled farther out. It finally occurred to me that I was in a rip tide. I was becoming seriously fatigued and decided to try to swim across the tide towards another distant beach. After a while, this finally worked and I was able to reach a place where I could touch bottom and wade ashore. I lay on the beach a long time, exhausted, before returning to the kampong.
Trekking in Nepal
We stood staring across the lake into the distance where Anna Purna towered, glowing white in the bright afternoon sun. Dawa, our Sherpa guide, started walking and we followed close behind. Our porters, a young Tibetan woman and a Nepalese man, carried all of our supplies - tents, food, cooking equipment and clothing - in large baskets hanging from straps around their foreheads.
When I’d arrived in Kathmandu the previous week I had met an Australian girl, Jane, as we were both getting off the plane from Bangkok. I asked her what she planned on doing in Nepal and she immediately told me she was going trekking. I’d never gone mountain hiking in my life so I don’t know what made me ask her if I could go along, but she said okay.
We went to a trekking company that, for $13 a day each, arranged for the necessary trekking permits, provided us with the guide and porters, as well as the tents, food, warm clothes and all the equipment needed for a week’s trek, going and returning, from a town called Pokhara to a tiny hamlet called Gundrun, near the base camp of Anna Purna. Anna Purna, the eleventh tallest mountain in the world, was over 25,000 feet high.
After leaving Pokhara and the lake behind, we followed a rocky, dry river bed in a valley about half a mile wide. Most of the surrounding mountains were terraced from top to bottom, planted in the spring with rice, corn, and wheat - the main staples of the Nepalese diet. In the distance, mushroom-shaped white houses clustered together against the mountains. We passed grazing water buffalo and a few Tibetan traders leading their pack ponies. The ponies wore red plumes on their heads and bells around their necks so they would be easy to find if they strayed. “Namaste,” we said to each other as we passed. Dawa told us that these traders were returning from Tibet, now China, where they traded for salt, among other staples.
The porters who had walked ahead of us after lunch, leaving us far behind, now put up the tents, built a fire, and cooked our dinner. They would not allow us to help, and although exhausted, I felt guilty being waited on. We crawled into our tent and relaxed while they served us our dinner, then cleaned everything up. The last thing I remember was the murmur of their voices as they hunkered around the campfire.
At dawn the next morning I climbed out of our tent to see an incredible sight. Clouds had settled over the mountains and only the tips of the large ones poked through. It looked and felt as if we were on an island, and that instead of walking, all we needed was a boat to reach the next mountain. Visibility was clear above the clouds and I could see smoke coming out of the small huts marooned on their islands. I stood staring for a long time and finally turned around to be greeted by the most awesome sight I’d ever seen. A luminous pink Anna Purna loomed over us, huge and dazzling. It took my breath away.
We could hear the bells from the pack ponies long before we saw them on the winding trail. When we finally met the Tibetan leading them I gestured to him that I wanted to take his picture. Through sign language he indicated that he would let me photograph him only if I gave him two rupees, about 16 cents. I gave him the money and as his ponies walked on, he stood and let me take a couple of photos.
The flow of people became sparser, and after a while we came to another small village where Dawa said we were to go down the mountain. We stopped to drink and rest before our descent. Suddenly, people started screaming and a fight broke out between a man and a ten year old boy, who was soon joined by his family, adding to the din. Dawa went to find out what was going on and when he returned I asked him what had happened. He just shrugged and shook his head, motioning for us to go.
The next morning the rain had stopped and after breakfast we set off on the last leg of the trip to Gundrun. After trudging down the mountain we spent the rest of the day climbing up another one until late that afternoon we walked over a rise and there was Anna Purna, now growing dark and foreboding as the sun set behind it. Below us, in a small valley, were about a dozen tents. Dawa said they were part of a group who were attempting to reach Anna Purna’s summit. Gundrun, just a handful of houses, sat on a ridge above the tents. We followed a path around the valley and found a spot to set up camp.
As usual we fell asleep as soon as dinner was over and woke at dawn. We basked in Anna Purna’s morning glow while camp was being packed up. Then, we retraced our path of the previous evening until we came to a fork where Dawa took us in a different direction. We passed two huts made of bamboo and grass. A woman inside one hut was cooking something in a pot over an open fire. We waved to her and she waved back. I remember thinking that if she wasn’t more careful she was going to burn her house down.
Eventually we reached a narrow rope bridge made of pieces of wood that had been tied together to walk on, with a thick rope providing a handhold. It was about forty feet across, suspended over a fast moving stream thirty feet below. The porters nonchalantly walked across, the bridge swaying freely. We followed. I didn’t realize until I had reached the other side that I had been holding my breath. I literally sighed with relief. I also wished we could get down to the stream so I could wash, but Dawa pushed on.
We climbed for a couple of hours until we reached a place where a few huts were huddled together. We bought bottled soft drinks from a man and sat down to enjoy the view. We could see the grass huts we had passed that morning on the mountain across the way. While we watched, the hut where we had waved to the woman burst into flames. I was amazed at how fast it burnt. Within a few minutes the structure was gone and only a pile of back smoking debris remained. I looked at Dawa to see his reaction but his face betrayed no emotion. He signaled for us to leave and we continued to climb.
Bartering with Buddhist Monks
Hotel accommodations were at a premium in Bodh Gaya because of the Dalai Lama’s visit. I was finally told to try at the Thai monastery. A young monk answered the door, and after listening to my request for a bed, went away to talk to someone. When he returned he asked me if in exchange for a room I would be willing to help him with his studies. He was taking a course in psychology at a nearby university, and the class materials had all been written down in English by his teacher, an Indian. He went on to tell me in halting English that he understood the language better when spoken than written and that he wanted me to read his teacher’s notes into a tape recorder. The job sounded like fun and I needed a place to stay, so I agreed to help him.
He took me to a big airy room, with enough bunk beds for a dozen people, but I would be its only occupant. He told me his name was Samrong, and we arranged to meet for out first recording session late in the afternoon.
Samrong came to our first meeting accompanied by the abbot of the monastery and two monks. The abbot asked me a few questions before deciding it was all right to leave me with Samrong (and one of he other monks). Every day I spent an hour or two reading the notes into the tape recorder and explaining to Samrong in simple English what his professor was trying to say.
I learned a lot from the monks, too, by inquiring about everything from their philosophy to their food. When I asked one how he had decided to become a monk, he told me that in Thailand almost all the men become monks, if only for a short period of time. Even their king had been a monk, for one month. This insured good karma for the family and education of a spiritual and practical nature for the son. Samrong was working towards his doctorate and when
Mrs. Colaco’s in New Delhi
The Sikh motor-rickshaw driver dropped me off on Jampath Lane in front of a badly hand-painted sign that proclaimed ‘MRS. COLACO’S HOTEL”. An old Indian man sat at the rickety wooden counter. When he told me they had only dormitory rooms, I asked him to let me see one first. He took me to a bare concrete room filled with four cots made of dirty canvas webbing. There were sleeping bags on two of the beds. The only window was a small one, up too high to see out of. A bare light bulb hung from the center of the large overhead fan. The walls were dingy gray, the concrete peeping through an old covering of white-wash. It was not appealing, but I had been told that it was a good place to meet other travelers and at eight rupees, a dollar a night, the cheapest place in New Delhi. I gave the old man enough money for a week.
Mrs. Colaco turned out to be a plump, attractive business woman from Goa. Her hotel was very popular among the low budget travelers not only because it was cheap but because she was willing to store luggage for free in a spare room used only for that purpose. There were about seven dormitory rooms with four to six cots in each.
The shower rooms were bare concrete and so big that if you hung your clothes on the wall opposite the shower, they would stay dry. For some reason western style flush toilets had been installed. They rarely worked and were never clean. The toilet rooms were tiny and the walls and door were covered with graffiti in every language. Some of the writers tried to out-gross each other in their efforts to extol in rhyme Mrs. Colaco’s hotel. Other travelers left messages for people they had met on the road. The toilets were so smelly and filthy I had to go through contortions to use them. The toilet seats were missing and the bowls brown and stained; the floors were usually wet and I didn’t want to know how they got that way. Wearing my walking shoes I would stand on the edges of the bowls and hover while balancing precariously, afraid to touch the grime on the walls.
One morning I accidentally left my old Timex in the shower room. That night I returned from sightseeing and was writing letters on my cot when a young man came to the room, held up my watch, and asked if it was mine. The following morning a distraught young woman came into the room asking if I’d seen her gold watch that she had just left in the shower room five minutes ago. She never did get it back.
Weddings and Wars in Pakistan
Dust swirled into the cab as Mick stopped the jeep in front of the Pakistani border office. The three of us got out and brushed off our clothes. We had left Amritsar at noon and spent a hot afternoon convincing the Indian customs officials that the radio/tape player registered in Mick’s passport had been stolen from him, that he hadn’t sold it. The argument heated up, and if Anne and I hadn’t interceded, who knows what might have happened? Actually, Mick had sold the radio. He needed the money to get home.
After not seeing them for several weeks, it was with great relief that I saw Mick waiting for me as soon as I got off the bus in Amristar. I had been warned by other travelers not to travel alone through Moslem countries. The three of us had agreed to travel together and share expenses. Mick and Anne would sleep in the Jeep, which was fitted with two sleeping berths, and I would rent hotel rooms and let them use the bath and toilet.
After passing through Pakistani customs, we headed for Lahore, about 50 miles from the border. The landscape was flat, with little in the way of greenery. We passed several groups of farm laborers returning home after a hard day in the fields. The women, who were completely covered from head to foot with long, pleated material, looked like multicolored ghosts, some of them with children attached.
I spent the night in the Intercontinental Hotel where, for the first time in two months, I had hot water to shower with. At dinner, we met some Pakistani businessmen who told us about the rioting that had just started to break out against President Bhutto. Mick was anxious to get out of Pakistan and avoid the fighting so we decided to go to Peshawar, obtain Afghani visas, and drive through the Kyber Pass. Since Peshawar was a two-day drive, we planned to stop over in Rawalpindi.
We left early in the morning, stopping several times on the way to stretch our legs. The same thing happened each time; we would stop at some desolate place, and immediately people would appear from nowhere, surround us, and just stare at us as if we were Martians. When we stopped to eat lunch, we attracted a crowd of about 50 spectators.
When we got to Rawalpindi there were soldiers everywhere, riding in trucks and standing around. There were plenty of hotels with vacancies, but it took us a long time to find one with a parking spot off the main street for Mick’s Jeep. I took a room on the fifth floor facing the rear. The ceiling had a big, old fashioned fan directly over the bed. It was hot, so I turned it on, and although it was noisy, I let it run all night. I thought I heard something outside but when I looked out the window I could see nothing, so went to bed. After a good night’s sleep, I woke up at 6 a.m. and went down to rouse Mick and Anne. I scratched on the Jeep’s canvas top and told them it was time to get movi
“What’s wrong? Why are you whispering?” I asked.
She started crying and said, “Right after we went to bed they started shooting. We tried to get into the hotel, but the doors were all locked and no one would let us in.”
The street fighting had kept them awake the whole night. They’d heard a man crying and groaning nearby, but were too terrified to investigate. They had spent the night hiding on the floor of the Jeep, buried under a pile of knapsacks and sleeping bags. “Didn’t you hear any of it?” I told them I hadn’t because of the noisy fan.
They crawled out of the Jeep and ran into the hotel to use the bathroom. As we drove out of Rawalpindi, we passed a burnt-out bus only a block from the hotel. We didn’t see a soul until we got to the outskirts of the city, where it was business as usual.
When we reached Peshawar early that afternoon, we were told that the only banks that cashed travelers checks were located on the main square. The square was filled with soldiers, and Mick and Anne became very nervous. I left them waiting for me in the Jeep while I went upstairs to the bank’s exchange department. There was a long line in front of me, and the clerk was very slow. Suddenly there were shouts and popping noises coming from outside the bank. By then, quite a long line had formed behind me, and I was determined to hold on to my place.
When I had cashed the checks I walked downstairs and out into the square. Mick, Anne and the Jeep were gone, along with my luggage. The soldiers and demonstrators stared at me and parted to let me by as I walked through the crowd, looking for my traveling companions. As I started to go down a side street, a nice-looking young man came up to me and said, in perfect English, that his name was Shahid and that he had seen my friends drive off. He offered to help me find them. I hadn’t made any progress on my own, so we hired a horse-drawn rickshaw and set off.
At every intersection he asked people if they had seen the Jeep, and inevitably someone would point in the direction they thought it had gone. The horse was too slow, so we switched to a motorcycle rickshaw. Finally, Shahid suggested that we go to his family’s house where I could wait, while he sent the neighborhood boys out to search for Mick and Anne. I was tired and welcomed his suggestion.
He took me home and introduced me to his mother, father and two sisters, who insisted that I relax and have something to eat. We sat on the floor in a room carpeted with Persian-style rugs, where Shahid’s mother and sisters had spread out a tablecloth and where they proceeded to serve us dinner. We ate communally, using the flat chappati bread to scoop up the food from the bowls. The family invited me to attend a cousin’s wedding that night, and I told them that if I found my friends and if we decided to stay in Peshawar, I would consider it an honor.
The neighborhood boys hadn’t turned up anything. It occurred to me then that Mick and Anne might have gone to the Afghani consulate. We took off in another rickshaw. Sure enough, there they were, leaning on the Jeep and looking very relieved to see me. Mick looked embarrassed and told me that the police had ordered him to leave the square. After last night, he wasn’t about to argue with the Pakistani army.
We applied for our visas, but the officials said it would take another day to process them. Mick and Anne, unwilling to spend another night in the Jeep, had already found an inexpensive hotel for us to stay in. Shahid invited Mick and Anne to the wedding and arranged to come get us later.
That evening, Mick, Anne and I walked with Shahid’s family to their cousin’s house for the wedding. When we arrived, all the women were led upstairs to the flat, walled in roof, while the men stayed downstairs. Anne and I were led to a small room, where a very nervous bride sat. Shahid had told us earlier that she was 27, that the wedding had been arranged by her parents, and that she had never met her fiancé. Her hands and feet had been decorated with henna and her eyes were lined with kohl. Her hair had been pulled back and gold chains hung from her hair to her pierced nose and ears. She shook our hands limply and looked miserable.
We returned to the roof, where the women were very friendly and curious, but communication was difficult without Shahid to translate. After a while, the women were led downstairs to a large room filled with tables and chairs. One long table was piled high with food. The men were nowhere to be seen, and we ate without them. Then we were herded back up the stairs where we resumed sitting on the floor. We waited. We could hear music below; evidently the men were being entertained by a group of musicians.
When the ceremony started, the men stayed below with the bride and groom, while the women stood on the roof looking down into the courtyard. The bride and groom both wore silvery, glittering veils that completely hid their faces. He sat on a skinny white stallion whose legs, mane and tail had been dyed orange with henna. The bride stood in front of him. Finally, he dismounted, and they both sat down on a carpet facing each other. A mirror was set down between them. Both of them leaned over and lifted their veils just enough so they could see each other’s reflections. This was the first time they had seen each other in person.
The wedding was still in progress when Mick, Anne and I left. When I said goodbye to Shahid’s mother she gave me a big hug and asked me to write. Early the next morning, we picked up our visas and set out for the Kyber Pass.
Pelicans and Bedbugs in Herat, Afghanistan
When Mick and Anne felt better and the tires had been repaired we headed for Herat. The road was good. Signs posted along the way proclaimed that it had been built by the Soviet Union. We were stopped at regular intervals by soldiers so they could collect tolls from us. None of us had ever encountered a road with so many tolls on it. Later we found out that this was the way soldiers made extra money in their spare time.
When we arrived in Herat, we found a place called the Pelican Motel that had nice looking little bungalows for rent. Since Mick and Anne were still weak from their encounter with dysentery, we decided to stay a couple of nights before pushing on into Iran. It was not long before we found out how the motel got its name. As we were unloading our bags from the back of the Jeep, we heard a hissing noise and turned to find ourselves being rushed at by a huge pelican. We retreated in haste until the owner managed to lure the bird away.
My room had a bed with a real mattress and sheets on it so I didn’t bother using my sleeping bag and fell asleep curled up on my left side. In the morning I woke feeling itchy and got up to look at myself in the mirror. My entire left side was covered in red bumps. Bedbugs. I got dressed and went outside to confront the owner.
“You’ve got bedbugs.” I yelled, “Look at me!”
“They’re from your sleeping bag,” he returned.
“I didn’t use my sleeping bag. It was on the other side of the room sitting on the chair,” I answered.
The argument went on but ended with his insisting that his bed absolutely didn’t have bedbugs and if there were any I must have brought them with me. I argued that this was the first time in all my travels that I had ever encountered them. He was so adamant that I finally gave up.
That afternoon I joined Mick, Anne, and the owner and several other people who were sitting outside talking. I asked how they fed the pelican and was told that they had fish shipped in from the ocean. As we talked, a man carrying a plastic bag filled with meat came in the front gate. Before anyone could do anything the pelican attacked him, grabbed the bag of meat away, and ran off. We all burst into laughter at the spectacle. The victim of the attack looked sheepish at having been caught unawares. The bird, discovering that the bag did not contain fish, dropped the meat in the dirt and stalked off.
That night I checked the mattress out carefully, looking closely, trying to see the bugs. If there were any, they were either hiding or very small, so I crawled into bed and curled up on my right side.
In the morning I woke up to find my sides a matched set. I was now evenly covered with red bumps. Mick and Anne snickered when they saw me and I glared at the owner, who just shrugged his shoulders. By the time we had eaten breakfast, packed the Jeep, and were ready to leave, I noticed that my mattress had been draped over a table in the sun to encourage the resident fauna to leave.
Mick turned the Jeep into the street, driving on the left side by mistake. He pulled up at the stop sign where a soldier stood waving his arms in sign language at us. He was a Mongol, giving a spooky appearance in his military garb which consisted of a high peaked Gestapo-type cap, a Russian uniform, and a rifle. The combination sent chills down my spine.
“I think he’s trying to tell us you’re not supposed to drive on the left side of the road,” said Anne.
“Bloody hell,” said Mick.
The soldier held his hand out toward us.
“He wants baksheesh,” I said.
“Bugger him,” yelled Mick angrily as he put the Jeep into gear and drove off leaving the soldier in our dust. Anne and I looked at each other and scrunched down in the seat waiting for gunfire, but nothing happened. It was a bluff. We headed for the highway and the Iranian border.
Mail Order Dating in London
I lived in London for eight months while I worked to save up money to go traveling again. I got a job my first week as a photography assistant in a studio, but really wanted to get good at silk screen printing so switched to a job at a display company near Elephant and Castle. I got to do so many things; from silk-screening wanted posters for Scotland Yard, to printing giant display photos, twenty feet tall by forty feet wide, for a large bank. I loved it.
I shared a flat with a couple of guys, Clive and Mark, civil engineers in their early twenties. After I’d shared with them for a few months they decided they wanted to put an ad in a popular local magazine called “Time Out” which offered a dating service by mail. They told me they wanted to try it but didn’t want to do it unless I did it as well. They put an ad in saying something about “two guys looking for fun” and I put an ad in about looking for “a man interested in eastern religions and travel.” You can imagine my shock when I received an envelope with 26 letters. Most of the men who answered were Asian. I guess they thought if I was interested in eastern religions, then I would certainly be interested in eastern men. I met several of the men and ended up dating Sam for several months.
Sam was the manager of the International Investment Department for the Bank of America in London. Chinese, born in Singapore, Sam was fun to go out with because he liked to do things above the norm. For my birthday he gave me flowers, a radio/tape player, and took me to see a visiting African dance troop. The next day he drove me in his yellow Jaguar XKE, one of several sports cars he owned, to meet my dowsing class at the Roll Right Standing Stones, one of many sites in England with a circle of large standing stones.
When Sam first asked me to go with him to the U.S.S.R., I wasn’t that interested. He was curious to see what it was really like there and that year was their 60th anniversary. The more he talked about it, the more I wanted to go.
We finally went in November 1977. We spent three days in Leningrad then took a train to Moscow, arriving late in the evening. We dropped off our luggage at the hotel and ran to the Red Square to watch the changing of the guards for Lenin’s tomb. A snow storm had started and under the bright spot lights aimed at the Kremlin walls, the snow swirled looking like a paper weight. The guards came goose-stepping towards the gate and suddenly I felt I was in the “Wizard of Oz” in the scene where Dorothy’s friends watch her and Todo being taken into the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. The fur hats, long coats and goose stepping brought the chant “Ho, ho, hooo, hum” into my head.
I had no idea that tourists were allowed inside the Kremlin but the next day we were taken through a museum inside the Kremlin filled with the incredible art and wealth of the Tzars, from Faberge’ eggs to old armor. That evening we attended a performance by the Moscow Ballet Company in a large theater there. We were also taken inside a couple of ancient cathedrals, one built over a thousand years ago. We went to see the Moscow Circus and visited several tourist gift shops. The only Russians we talked to were our guides.
Oh yes, my roommates, Clive and Mark? They got one answer to their Time Out ad and it was a postcard from another guy who told them that he would be waiting to hear from them by a pay phone on a certain date, which turned out to be the day before they received the postcard. Since they weren’t gay, I had a good laugh.
I got off the Russian ship in Alexandria and headed immediately to the youth hostel where I was given a bed in a women’s dormitory. When I went to eat lunch there were only a few people in the dining room. The heat was already oppressive. I bought a soft drink, a roll, and a packaged cheese and sat down to eat. A young man sitting at the next table asked me where I was from. He looked Egyptian but was wearing western clothes, blue jeans and polo shirt. I told him I was American and we talked for a while. He told me his name was Tarek and that he was an engineering student at Cairo University. He had just returned from hitchhiking for six month around Sudan. He was visiting with friends in Alexandria but was soon leaving for Europe. He offered to show me around the city. I had been feeling lonely and isolated, but now, meeting this handsome, well-educated man who spoke English so well, I felt better. I agreed to go with him, and we planned to meet the following morning when it would be cooler.
Tarek and I walked around taking in the sights and the people. He took me to see a Roman amphitheater. We watched young boys playing happily at the edge of the Mediterranean. It was a beautiful scene until I saw the raw sewage floating in the water around them. The men we passed were mostly dressed in jalabas, long loose robes. The women wore a variety of costumes, a few dressed in western-style clothes while most wore full-length, long-sleeved dresses and head coverings. I saw a number of women wearing veils, others wore nun-like cowls, while some just wore head scarves. The nomad women wore embroidered sack dresses and had tattoos on their faces. Tarek took me back to the hostel in the afternoon, saying he had to go meet his friends. He asked me if I would like to meet them the next day, and I said yes. We arranged to get together at noon.
We took a bus to a suburb and walked around large piles of garbage to a narrow street where we went up a flight of stairs and knocked on a door. A young man wearing pajamas let us in. Tarek introduced his friend, Ahmed, and as we shook hands his brother, Hameed, entered the room. They made tea and we spent the afternoon talking about the difference between American and Egyptian cultures. They didn’t speak English so Tarek served as translator. Ahmed wanted to show me his chickens. He and Hameed led me up narrow stairs to the walled-in roof where, sure enough, half a dozen scrawny chickens were running around. I photographed Ahmed proudly holding a couple of them. Tarek suggested that we all go out together that evening to a nightclub he knew.
The taxi stopped near the water and let us out. Tarek paid the driver, then led us inside. A wedding party was going on in the main room, so the waiter led us to a table on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. Tarek ordered soft drinks for us. The music from the wedding made it too loud to talk so we sat quietly, sipped our drinks and watched the belly dancer, who weighed at least 300 pounds, entertain the wedding party. The photographer, who had been taking pictures of the wedding, stopped at our table and asked if we wanted a picture. Tarek said yes. We smiled and the flash went off, blinding us. The photographer gave Tarek his card and said we could pick up our prints the next day at noon. The belly dancer began another dance which ended with her plopping in the groom’s lap. The photographer snapped the picture. Both the bride and groom had blank, bored expressions. I wondered if their marriage had been arranged.
The next day we went to pick up the photo. We climbed steep stairs up to the photographers office which was covered from floor to ceiling with photos of different oversized belly dancers sitting on many different wooden-faced groom’s lap. The brides’ faces all looked just as happy. We paid for our photo and outside Tarek insisted I keep it for a souvenir.
Tarek and I spent several days sightseeing. The day before I planned to leave for Cairo Tarek invited me to go back to his friends’ place. This time he opened the door with a key and I asked him where Ahmed and Hameed were. He said they were out, but he had brought us there so he could tell me something. He said it in such a way that a sense of dread came over me. We sat down. “You are the only person I can tell this to. Even Ahmed and Hameed don’t know the truth. I can’t keep this to myself anymore. I have to tell someone and I know I can trust you.”
He told me that several years before he had been halfway through his final year in a five year engineering course at Cairo University when he had helped his cousin organize a rally to educate workers about unions in a factory town south of Cairo. Two weeks after the rally, soldiers had come to his apartment and taken him away. He was kept isolated and only much later found out that his cousin had also been taken away and all their books confiscated. Neither of them ever had a trial. Tarek spent two years in a civilian prison, then was thrown into a military prison. His family attempted to help him but were told by their attorney that they had no legal recourse because Tarek was a political prisoner. In prison the men were treated cruelly. At night, in the heat, they were herded into a room only large enough to allow them space to sit, but not lie down. A corner of the room was used as a toilet. The security at the prison was lax, and after months of planning, Tarek escaped. I asked him how but he wouldn’t say. I wondered if his family had bribed a guard.
Tarek’s family had kept him hidden while the police watched their house. They finally realized that they had to get Tarek out of the country. To get him a passport, they submitted Tarek’s picture with the birth certificate of one of his younger brothers, who was a university student. Unfortunately, student passports were good for only six months to ensure that traveling students returned home to serve in the military. With great difficulty and the help of a Dutch girl he’d met, they managed to get him a tourist visa for Holland and he left. Months later, homesick and with his passport about to expire, he returned to Egypt. The family got him another passport and scraped enough money together to send him south to Sudan where he waited out his banishment. There, he’d met a Canadian girl and they’d spent a couple of months hitchhiking around. She was the source of his good English language skills. He had just returned and was in the process of renewing the passport again when we met. He was going to try to go across North Africa to Morocco then to Spain. This time there would be no return.
I was dumfounded. I felt useless, not knowing what I could do to help. Tarek thanked me for listening to him. He made me promise not to tell anybody. He said he couldn’t trust anyone and not even Ahmed or Hameed knew his secret.
I didn’t know what to think. Was this a bizarre con or was he telling me the truth? I asked him when he was leaving and he said in a few weeks. Then he asked me to go back with him to his family’s house. I told him I thought it might attract the police if an American suddenly showed up in his small village. He said his brother could help sneak me in at night. I told him I didn’t want to sneak in and it was still too dangerous. He finally admitted I was right. I told him I was going to Cairo the next day as planned. He was sad, saying that he had hoped we could spend some more time together. I asked him if it was possible for him to go to Cairo. He said yes, but he would have to be careful. I told him he could find me at the youth hostel there. I needed time to absorb what he’d told me.
In the morning, Tarek took me to the place where the taxis driving to Cairo picked up passengers. For some reason this cost the same or less than riding a bus, if you don’t mind sharing. As soon as five riders filled the car, we left. As we drove away I turned around and saw Tarek standing, staring after the car. The driver turned the radio up loud, and a woman wailed the same song over and over during the entire drive. Her voice was tense with emotion. As she sang, the men in the taxi sighed heavily and made signs to me to show how much they loved her. After the twentieth rendition of the song, I was amazed at their stamina.
I spent a week in Cairo and never saw Tarek. I went to Luxor and Aswan and returned to Cairo two days before my ship was due to leave Alexandria. As I walked out of the Cairo train station, a chain gang of military prisoners was herded by. They all looked badly beaten and had patches of hair missing, as if someone had gone mad with an electric razor. They wore filthy black and white striped prison clothes and shuffled by with chains attached to their legs. I thought about Tarek.
I checked into the youth hostel, and that evening went down to the dining room. I was sitting, talking to people, when Tarek came in looking for me. We walked along the Nile. He said he had been looking for me for several days. I told him where I’d been and he was silent for a while. I asked him about his family and he said they were fine except for a younger sister who was mentally retarded and had recently been raped by an unknown man. He seethed with anger toward the assailant and talked about what he and his brother wanted to do to the man when they found him. We walked back to the youth hostel and I agreed to meet him the next day.
When I met Tarek in the morning, we walked to a park and sat on a bench. He was nervous and started to talk about his family and how much of a burden he was to them. He said with nine brother and sisters his parents could not afford to help him very much. He asked me if I could give him some money to escape. I felt terrible because at this point in my travels of almost two years, I was literally running out of money. That afternoon Tarek came with me to the taxi stop where I was going to catch a ride to Alexandria. I kept just enough money to get back to England and gave him the rest, about fifty dollars. We wished each other luck and I got into the taxi. I wondered what was going to happen to him.
Fracturing my Wrist in Morocco
After a week, I finally got on a bus to begin my travels around Morocco. I spent the next two weeks traveling around the country by myself, feeling lonely until I met a couple of German girls in the youth hostel in Fez. We ended up traveling together on a crowded bus to Marakech. We spent a week there before deciding to check out the coast. I showed them how it was possible to rent a taxi to take us all the way across the desert for the same price as a bus. We rented a room on a beach in Agadir. One day we met a group of German guys, a band that was touring around in a van. They invited us to go swimming with them in a place called Paradise Valley.
When we got near the valley the guys informed us we had to hike in for several miles to reach it but there was a “short cut” of only a mile straight down the mountain. While climbing down to the valley I slipped and fell. I hung onto a branch in desperation but it broke and I went sliding down the gravely slope until I finally grabbed onto a tree. When I made it down to the valley there was a beautiful swimming hole filled with half a dozen young European men skinny dipping. Above us, sitting on a rock ledge and watching intently were about fifteen Moroccan men wearing heavy wool gelebas in the heat. They stared at us women with hopeful eyes. My friends wore bikinis underneath their clothes so they just stripped and jumped into the perfectly clear blue water, while I jumped in with all my clothes on because I knew they would dry out before we had to climb up again.
It wasn’t until we returned to Agadir that night that an intense pain began to throbe in my right wrist. I must have hurt it on the slide down the mountain. I spent the night in agony and the next morning decided I had to go to a town to see what was wrong. I said goodbye to my friends then took a bus to Essaouira cradling my arm like a baby against my chest. Once there I went to the local hospital where they took X-rays but the machine was old and they were unable to find anything. When I went to pay, they just shook their heads and said I didn’t have to pay since they hadn’t been able to find anything.
I stayed a few days in Essaouira but the pain only got worse. I finally decided to return to Larache because at least I knew people there. I took a bus up the coast that stopped in Casablanca and other places I would have liked to seen more of if I hadn’t been in so much pain. The family was surprised but happy to see me. I checked into another hotel where I spent most of my time in bed because the pain was less intense if I just laid my arm flat on a pillow. After a couple of days, Abderahman, Rachid’s older brother, decided to drive me to a hospital in Tangiers.
I showed the doctors at the hospital the X-ray but they just shook their heads and referred me to a private doctor. I went to the doctor’s office and waited. While I waited a Moroccan man came in with a broken wrist who had also been referred by the hospital. The doctor asked him if he had enough money to pay for the visit and when the man said no the doctor told him to go away. I should have left then but I was feeling desperate. When the doctor saw me and realized I was an American tourist he must have thought he was in heaven. He took one look at my wrist and decided I had pulled a tendon then proceeded to put a very large, heavy cast on my arm. After I paid him, the family took me back to Larache.
That night the pain was worse than before. The cast was so heavy and painful I began picking at it. Obviously, whatever was wrong with my wrist it was not a pulled tendon. By he next day the pain was o much worse I ripped the cast off. I decided to stay away from Moroccan doctors from then on.
The family invited me to stay with them. I moved to their apartment and every evening they made up a cot in the living room for me to sleep on. They fed me and took care of me and I was deeply grateful. I became closest to Nourdeen because he spoke the best English in the family. When he wasn’t working, we hung out with each other. I learned a little Spanish and he learned a little English and somehow we communicated. He took me around his town and we explored the ruins of an old hospital overlooking the Atlantic. In the evenings we sometimes met with his friends and sang together.
One day Nourdeen told me he wanted to become a computer programmer. He only said it once, but it planted a seed idea in my head. With the pain as motivation, I began thinking that maybe I should settle down and become a computer programmer like my sister, Janice. The irony of this is that years before my sister had been telling my mom about her work and my mother made the comment that I should think about getting into computer programming. I had vehemently put the idea down, saying I would NEVER do something so boring.
Eventually, I left Morocco and traveled back to England where I went to see a doctor. I had left my hand untended for so long that the bones had atrophied, causing something called Sudek’s Atrophy, which meant that I could no long bend my wrist. I went to therapy but it was too late, nothing helped. I gradually got back the use of my fingers, I just couldn’t bend my wrist.
I returned to California and my first day back I went to one of the state employment offices. When they saw my hand they said I would have to retrain and asked me if there was something I was interested in doing. I said that I’d decided to become a computer programmer. They told me to go to a CETA office.
A month later I happened to be walking right in front of the CETA office, and decided to check it out. I learned that to qualify I had to have been out of work for six months and living on my savings. I’d been out of work for exactly six months and living on my savings, while traveling around Europe and Morocco. I also qualified because I had damaged my hand so badly. I went to the Computer Learning Center near downtown Los Angeles and passed the aptitude test with flying colors. CETA not only paid the tuition for the six month course, but also paid me for the time I spent at school, so I was able to live without loans. I’d just gotten in under the wire because President Reagan eliminated CETA within weeks of his taking office, but by then I’d already started the program so was allowed to finish.