Lessons Learned on the Jungle Trail

Before I left Cambodia for Fiji, I booked a Lao village tour. I had remembered taking one with my mother and brother years ago on my first visit to Laos and wanted to recapture the experience. However, somehow, I missed the part where the tour company called it a leg-pumping trek and falsely assumed that I would be Jeeped to a village in Laos’ rugged interior as we had been in the 1990s.This tour was an adventure for someone else, although I think that even a twenty-something trekker would have found it daunting. During the hike, I worried most that I’d die from heat stroke or fall down and twist my ankle! That was if a snake didn’t bite me in the jungle. (My guide, a small, compact young man in his mid-twenties named Lajly, told me that snakes often fall out of the trees, but he reassured me that they would either be dead or too hot to bite.)

Lajly and I started out on a short trip across the Nam Khan River in a long dugout canoe. By luck, we came upon a small herd of elephants and their mahouts, who were leisurely preparing to spend the day taking tourists to other hamlets and over the steep, rocky trails in and around the jungle and rubber plantations. Riding elephants wasn’t an option on my tour, and neither was a special audience with a herd. I considered this a good omen for the rest of the day.

Not until I hiked to it did I realize that the Theung village of Lao Sung could only be reached by four hours of trekking on unshaded, rough dirt paths potholed from elephant tracks and dotted with large mounds of elephant poop. The temperature was close to one hundred degrees, and the only shade came from the leaves of elephant ear plants—luckily, a plant quite abundant in Laos.

As Lajly was cutting leaves for us to carry like umbrellas, he related an old Lao fable. The story went that a merchant was traveling by elephant to Southeast Asia. When they reached Laos, the elephant told his master that he was old and could not go any further. It was time for him to die. His master, who had great affection for the beast, buried him in the jungle, and the elephant ear plant grew from his ear. His eyes twinkling, Lajly said, “That’s why so many elephant ear plants grow in Laos.”

Occasionally, we would duck out of the sun by walking alongside the edge of a rubber plantation or cool off by crossing a stream on a rickety foot bridge made of twigs and vines. But mostly we walked in the unrelenting sun as it rose high above us in the sky. It was late morning by the time we reached the village; rather than explore anything, I collapsed on a bench, closed my eyes, and didn’t move for a very long time.

The village, with its bamboo huts and dirt yards, seemed intensely poor. The only inhabitants besides the goats and chickens were very young children—who appeared to spend their days unsupervised, running barefoot over the dirt—and very old women with gnarly hands and bright birdlike eyes that squinted from faces of wrinkled leather. We ate a simple homemade lunch prepared by an elderly couple whom I assumed were husband and wife. While we sat at a picnic table in front of a glorified shack, two little girls peeked out from the doorway to giggle and watch us; the apparent husband smoked on a homemade bamboo water pipe. Embarrassed by the poverty, I took off the necklace I was wearing, a colorful piece of costume jewelry, and presented it to our hostess. Although her toothless smile was shy, I think it was sincere.

Unfortunately, there was no shortcut back to the river, so we started walking down the sun-flooded trail at high noon. There was no Jeep service to call, no elephant to rescue me. Eventually, Lajly turned off the road, entering the jungle. “What are we doing? Are we there?” I asked, hoping we were close to the river. But no, Lajly was cutting through the jungle to get us out of the sun. I ignored the mosquitoes and did my best to keep hiking, even though I was unbearably hot. Lajly stopped and said, “This way; we have to climb down in order to reach the waterfall and the river.” What way? All I saw was a black hole in the ground! “Climb down? Climb how?” I squealed as I looked into the dark abyss.

“It’s okay,” he replied, trying to reassure me. “There’s a ladder.” I peered in closer. There was a rope ladder, the skinny wooden rungs about fifteen feet apart, descending further than the light. “I’ll go down first,” he said. “Then I can help you.” What choice did I have? I could turn back to the sun-drenched trail, stay where I was and get bitten to death by mosquitoes, or go down the rope.

He directed my shaking foot down to each rung, while my hands clutched the cables with a death grip to slowly lower myself. At the base of the rope ladder, Lajly helped my feet touch solid ground and grinned at me. “Are we there?” I asked. “Close, close. It is just a little further,” he answered. “Take my photo,” I demanded with a false bravado—my jeans were soaked with sweat. Close was still too far, but I was okay, and finally we arrived at the falls. Tourists were swimming in the cold pool or sitting on the deck drinking beer and wine. I lay down flat on a small deck off the base of the waterfall, trying to relieve my aching back. There was no relief, no euphoria—only dull shock. I fell asleep. When I awoke fifteen minutes later, or maybe it was an hour, I was disoriented. When I tried to stand, my legs cramped from my hips to my toes. I was dehydrated. 

Lajly gave me a bottle of water and assurances that the river and our boat were just a few paces away beyond the brush. Next time, I will read the fine print.

This story is excerpted from The Wanderer.

Thanks Thom Thom (Means Big Big in Khmer)

I’m still not quite proficient in this blogging sphere and haven’t yet figured out how to thank those of you who have taken the time to acknowledge some shared connection with something I have posted. However, I am grateful, and I admit to a thrill when I get a notice from WordPress.

This past Mother’s Day brought with it joy and sorrow, surprises and disappointments. My elder two daughters presented me gifts that displayed a true sense of my aesthetics, most grandchildren remembered with sweet sayings and cards, and close-almost-family surprised me with thoughtful gifts and wishes.

I missed my mom, GiGi, as did my cousins, who were all texting remembrances of aunties and shared grandmothers…and I dwelled too long on my own mortality.

My daughter, with whom I share a home with her family, left after a breakfast of home-made egg McMuffins for the Atlanta Zoo, but I preferred to remain behind. It was then that I learned Carole Ann had passed away the day before. Carole Ann, my friend of 71 years. I was lucky enough to see her just a few weeks ago. I had decided to brave Covid and travel to Florida…call it intuition. Not even a half hour after I left her, I had a major arthritis flare…call that intuition too.

Not everyone I “mothered” felt called upon to wish me a happy day, but there were certainly enough joy and love to see me through my most recent loss, my missing my own mother as well as those women who no longer are present in life but live large in my heart and memories: Marilyn, Faye, Sr. Libby, and now Carole. Happy Mother’s Day.

“Like her name, so is she . . .”

The biblical verse uses the pronoun “he,” but never mind. In the Jewish tradition, especially Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jewish culture, families name babies after the dead. It is not only a way of honoring the person and hoping that the child will emulate the qualities of his or her namesake, but also as I understand it, the name carries that person’s memory forward. It is a way to assure their immortality. My granddaughter, Ella Michelle, bears the name of my aunt Marilyn and shares her Hebrew name. (Ella is a special name of her father, maybe because Ella Fitzgerald is a favorite singer— although it has no religious significance.) In temple, at Ella’s baby naming ceremony I, named Chasha for my paternal grandmother, stood with my daughter, named Brina for her maternal grandmother, as well as my mother. I felt the presence of generations of Jewish women and rejoiced in knowing that their memories would carry forward.

My granddaughter, Ayla, was not named in a temple ceremony. The members of her family were neither practicing Jews nor Christians, although they occasionally celebrated holidays of both religions. I convinced a family friend who belonged to a rather unorthodox Jewish congregation to name her in his temple for two of the women I loved best in this world. Both died relatively young, and both were exemplars of strong, loving, and courageous women. Faye was a psychologist, feminist activist, mentor, and friend. Sister Elizabeth was a progressive Dominican nun. For Ayla to bear their names was not so much for them to be remembered—many would remember them—but for her to be “like her name, so is she,” She carries their English names, Faye and Eliza, a gift to inspire her life.

The Journey of a KFC Gift Card

The young couple sat on a bench across from the screening desk where Avery was taking temperatures and directing clients into the health center. Both of them were thin, their clothes scruffy and too flimsy for the cool winter weather. Two bulging white trash bags leaned against their legs. They talked in hushed voices, their faces masks of anxiety. Avery called over to them. “Hi, can I help you? What seems to be the problem?” The woman replied. “We need to get to a DMV and then to Marietta to a sober living community. We tried once before but couldn’t get there. “

Her voice was neither hopeful or angry—rather, it was flat and defeated.

“But why come here to the health department? Are you from around here?”

They named a county in Georgia, but Avery had no idea where it was. They apparently came to seek information and confused the health department with the public library, which sat directly across the parking lot.

“The people here told us there is a local bus that can drop us at the DMV; then we can call the sober living community, and they will come and get us. (Marietta is the next county over and a good hour away by car.) “But we have to call the community before 2:00 p.m. or we will be too late again.”

“Do you have change for the bus?” Avery asked. I knew that buses often take only the exact fare, and bus prices vary wildly from place to place. 

The young woman replied, “It’s $2.50 a person, and we only have a credit card. I called them for their schedule, but they won’t take a credit card.”

Avery was hoping for a dollar each, not $2.50 for a community bus. Damn, she thought. Avery had a five and a twenty-dollar bill. She wasn’t keen on giving them the twenty, but the five was okay, even if it was a scam. Avery’s personal philosophy: Better to be cheated than not to help people in need. It was already past noon, and they were running out of time. She offered them the five.

Relieved, the girl called the bus again to check when it would arrive. It would be at the library in twenty minutes. They could get it all done in time.

“Have you had your COVID vaccinations yet?” Avery asked. The young man said “yes,” but his partner shook her head to indicate that she had not. “You can get one here free, right now, and be able to still catch your bus on time.” She nodded her agreement, and I ushered her down the hall to the nurses, leaving the young man behind to wait.

Earlier that December, at Hanukkah, Avery’s daughter had given her a KFC gift card. Avery occasionally, very occasionally, treated herself to a chicken thigh and a biscuit. It was an addiction of sorts—a treat for a difficult day, or a lunch break on a long drive. She had tried to use the card. It didn’t work. Apparently, she had not scratched off the code. She subsequently followed the directions, this time giving the card to a co-worker, but it still didn’t work. Her co-worker got stuck paying for lunch. The KFC help line said that it was not formatted correctly and agreed to mail her a new twenty-dollar card.

She watched the young man as he waited patiently for his partner to be vaccinated. He didn’t look sad; as before, he appeared to be resigned and tired. Avery pulled the new card from her wallet. “Be sure to scratch off the code before you use it,” she instructed as she gave it to him.

He clutched the card and thanked her.

Later, as she watched the pair cross the parking lot to the bus stop, she thought, I guess this card was just not meant for me.

Caveat Emptor: Let the Buyer Beware

In this crazed housing market, I want to remind folks who want to buy a house today that they need to step back before bidding up their dream house and buying a nightmare. Sellers lie; they employ subterfuge and deception. For example, they top off a broken air conditioner with freon, fooling the inspector—perhaps costing them $1,000 but saving 10 times that much on the cost of replacing a damaged system. Friends have had sellers who patch and paint over leaking roofs and ceilings that conceal mold and damage. Inspectors routinely underestimate the cost of repairs, such as foundation and drainage problems.

I heard of one seller who cheated the buyer, a neighbor, by not revealing a long-standing, major drainage problem that had existed for years. She was a local TV celebrity, divorcee, and single mom. The woman she sold it to was a single mom as well. When the bill to correct the problem came in at $35,000, the buyer confronted the seller. Her response: “I’m a single mother and needed to get the most I could from the sale of my house.” In her hubris, she had no regard for the woman who bought her house. 

Yes, older homes have problems, and home buyers often do not prepare for unexpected repairs and costs. Real estate agents should always remind their clients that this is a given. Buyers should insist on at least a one-year home warranty in the sales contract. Paying for a second inspector could protect you from a deceitful seller, but a clever seller can be hard to overcome.

I find the greed and avarice in the housing market to be unforgivable, but it is merely a reflection of our world today. Self-interest at any cost is the motto of our times—and it will be our undoing-whether its ignoring climate change, price gouging, cheating a buyer, or letting the Ukrainians suffer while we complain about gas prices.


Nothing is Just Red or Blue

Mix a little complexity into the pallet, and you get a spectrum of pink to purple. Politicized topics in America’s ongoing culture wars include abortion, BIPOC, and LGTBQ+ issues.

I don’t know anyone who thinks abortion is a great contraceptive method and should be available to all women, whenever it is requested. However, I do know lots of people who believe in personal choice, when either the mother or fetus is in danger of death or permanent, irreparable debility, as well as abortion for rape and incest victims, and abortion on demand prior to fetal viability. I also know folks who think we should allow pregnant women who do drugs to get an abortion, followed by sterilization.

Feminists made a critical error forty years ago when they allowed the pro-choice movement to become the pro-abortion movement. We are pro-life and, among our policies, we support family planning, access to contraception and viable health care, and education for children in need of parental support.

I directed a women’s studies program in the early 1990s, at what I thought was the height of identity politics. Everyone wanted a seat at the table, a piece of the action, a vote. Layered in idealistic rhetoric, at best, it was rooted in self-interest and revenge for past grievances. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, pronounced “by-pock”) is a relatively new term for the identity politics of forty years ago. I don’t believe that it has evolved into its potential for bringing humanity into a diverse community capable of collective action. But I applaud the struggle and disdain those who support a racist or supremacist hegemony by any one race or group.

LGBTQ+ rights is yet another topic that does not fall neatly, if at all, into any dichotomy of pro and con. My second oldest grandson was my first oldest granddaughter. Short and petite like me, he excelled in extreme sports. His decision to trans into a male was pure gender identity. He wasn’t looking to use a traditional male physique to give him a competitive advantage; he didn’t need one. He isn’t curious about the boys’ bathroom, and he certainly is not a threat to anyone.

It is estimated that one or two babies per one hundred are born with both male and female genitals or ambiguous genitalia. What gender the child will ultimately be assigned depends upon who is making the decision, but it doesn’t include the child’s wishes—obviously a child is too young to have a say in the matter. That doesn’t mean that the gender assignment is actually the correct identity for the child, which leads to gender confusion and worse. Changing one’s gender to fit one’s identity is a positive and empowering act.

Homosexual behavior has been around at least since the advent of recorded history. Only now, we are being asked to acknowledge and respect people’s sexual choices. Most if not all the angst about LGBTQ+ people is over straw man issues raised for the vilest of political machinations. Ah, if only our politicians would pay as much attention to sex trafficking and addiction!

And, if you think these topics are complicated, consider the war in Ukraine. The majority of Crimean citizens consider themselves Russian and want to leave Ukraine. Prior to the Soviet Union’s President Gorbachev, Ukraine was part of Russia’ sphere, and many Russians are still angry that he allowed it to become independent. Russia wants what it considers defensible borders and a seaport for access to the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Ukraine has its own language and history and is culturally separate from its neighbor. Regardless, the Russian offensive and the loss of civilian (and military) life is inexcusable in today’s fragile world. War is a luxury this planet can no longer afford.

*The Ukraine gained its independence from Russia in 1991.


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Holding Mother’s Hand

Prologue: I wrote this story many years ago. My mother passed away in 2013. My son-in-law recently purchased a walker to keep in the utility room—just in case. I take my daily walk with a ski-pole in case I lose my balance. I wonder now who’s holding whose hand.

“No wheelchair. I’m not going to be pushed around like a toddler,” Mom said, her stooped frame silhouetted against the bright vista of mountains and blue skies of Window Rock, Arizona.

“Really, Mom. Don’t be so stubborn. It’ll be easier for us to cover the museum,” I said, pushing a wheelchair in her direction.

“But I can walk. It’s embarrassing,” she replied.

Ignoring her protests, I clicked my tongue impatiently while helping her to sit down in the chair. The Navajo Nation Museum was a beautiful arts center, but it was very large, containing many galleries full of contemporary art and ethnic history. I wanted to explore it all but, after several days of slow going to accommodate Mom’s aging shuffle, I decided that using the wheelchair provided for guests was a great idea.

Mom smiled up at me, camouflaging her resignation to her plight. I patted her hand and smiled back. I wasn’t giving in and, if she wouldn’t cooperate, I wasn’t offering any options. It was for her own good. We began our mobile tour in a portrait gallery. Stunned to see faces with the likenesses of Tibetan friends who lived half a planet away staring from the canvasses, I forgot about my mom and wandered off without her. 

“Hey!” she called.

“Sorry, Mom! Won’t happen again,” I said as I retrieved her.

I kissed her lightly on the cheek, apologized again. We moved to the galleries filled with artifacts of struggle, resistance, death, and survival. The high vaulted ceilings sent beams of light down to the floor below. One beam illuminated my mother as she read famous Native American quotes that lined the desert-red walls.

“You should remember this one, young lady,” she said, pointing to a short quote on a plaque above a bronze warrior standing over a dead grizzly: Force, no matter how concealed, begets resistance. – Lakota

“I’m not forcing you to use the wheelchair. I just want to make getting around easier for you.”

“Hmmph.”

Then I saw it—a Pueblo quote a few yards further along the wall: Hold on to my hand, even if someday I’ll be gone away from you. Mom saw it too and looked meaningfully up at me. I reached out my hand; she took it and pulled herself up. A museum guide took the wheelchair away. Mom pulled back her shoulders, looked around to see who might be watching and, letting me take her hand in mine, continued slowly through the exhibits with me.

I’m not sure if we covered every exhibit, but we saw enough. Mom had a good laugh when I had to park myself on a bench to catch my breath. We chatted easily face to face, which was better than looking at the top of her head while she sat in the chair. I was glad that she had resisted, reclaimed her independence.

 I also discovered something else that day—not just her strength, but also her increasing vulnerability. Her hands, soft and plump, had always held mine—crossing a busy street, maneuvering through a crowded store, entering a classroom for the first time. But that day in the museum, it was I who held her hand in mine. It was my hand supporting her, reassuring her, protecting her.

*Excerpted from The Fourth Moment: Journeys from the Known to the Unknown

Ineffable Experiences

I could see the Yongxing monastery crawling up the side of Beishan Mountain from my hotel window. I wanted to go there. Too far to walk, I thought, but how I would get there was a mystery to me. The sum total of my Chinese Mandarin vocabulary was limited to xiè xiè (thank you) and nǐ hǎo (hello). I had to find someone who could help me navigate the city. I decided to try my luck with Wu, the twenty-something desk clerk who had tried so hard to communicate when I arrived. 
Apparently, it was an easy walk from the hotel, but that part got lost in translation. Because I suffer from acquired topographical disorientation, or directional dyslexia—I’m always getting lost—a cab was a better option.
The ride didn’t take long, but I was too busy looking at people and storefronts, architecture and back window vistas, to really pay attention to the route. I remember that the cab turned into a long narrow road to the entrance to the temples, which stretched up the mountainside to its very top. A few people wandered around the lower temples and gardens. A monk, sitting and eating an apple, barred my entrance into the large sanctuary on the first level; so I strolled through the bonsai garden and then started up the stone stairs to the next level. Before I had climbed the second step, the monk tapped me on the shoulder . . . and handed me an apple. He sauntered down a different path, and I continued up. The temple on that level was closed, so I had to decide whether to continue climbing or return to the bottom of the mountain and try to figure out my way back to the hotel. 
It was then that I spied a small man, dressed all in the blue—the uniform of the people who serve the monks and take care of the shrines and grounds. He beckoned me over, but as I followed him, compelled by my curiosity, he disappeared up the next flight of stairs. I climbed after him but didn’t see him at the top. Since I had entered the back of the sanctuary, I rolled the prayers wheels lining the outer walls while I made my way to the front. He wasn’t there . . . and then he was. Again, he gestured for me to follow him, and again he disappeared up the steps. I climbed up five more levels, finding him and then losing sight of him, until I finally saw him waiting in front of an open temple. He summoned me inside.
“I don’t know how to pray in a Vajrayana style. I learned Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could even ascertain whether he understood English. A smile broke across his heavily lined face and, saying nothing, he took my hands and put them together in a sort of clasp; then he pushed them up to touch my forehead before placing them on my chest. He let go of my hands, clasped his own hands, and put them on his forehead, then his chest; then he knelt and placed his forehead on the floor, his clasped hands out in front of his head. I copied his movements, although it took me several times to get the sequence right.
As I got to my feet, the sensation that something strange had just happened washed over me. He was smiling and nodding his head in approval. I started to ask him who he was and why he had taught me how to pray; but before I could utter anything more than thanks, he was gone, and I was left to wonder. 
I was light-headed and a little dizzy as I found my way back down to the monastery entrance and walked past the fortune tellers and souvenir sellers out through the front gates to the narrow road that my morning cab had taken. I was in an old industrial area, rusty and unwelcoming. I quickened my pace and walked until I got to a large street, heavy with traffic. If only I had a better sense of direction and geography, I would have realized that I was a mile at most from my hotel. If only. I showed a passerby my hotel card and, true to the angels of Xining, he pointed to a bus bench across the road and said “98.”
 
*This story is excerpted from The Wanderer
 

Stop the Madness

Lots of things worry me about the current political and social climate in America. Some are head-shakers for their sheer stupidity, like the woman who wanted a religious exemption for her dog not to get a rabies vaccination because he is a Christian. Or the Florida legislature that is entertaining a bill to make discussing being gay against the law in public schools. However, nothing struck me with as much terror as the report on this morning’s Atlanta news. There is a bill circulating in the Georgia legislature to do away with ALL vaccine mandates in public schools. If passed, it will be a death sentence for thousands, maybe millions, of children. What are these people thinking?

Across the United States in 1916, polio took the lives of about 6,000 people, leaving thousands more paralyzed ( https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline#EVT_100303). Not a single case of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) was reported this week. There are no cases reported in 2021 (https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwj-wvqn-1AhVNmGoFHRKTCtEQFnoECAIQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fpolioeradication.org%2Fpolio-today%2Fpolio-now%2Fthis-week%2F&usg=AOvVaw3BdfUEH5m9mNnQ0cm4NrQA).

 Why? Why would we want to go backwards?

Vaccines don’t wipe out the disease; they just protect us from becoming infected. I watched my daughter struggle to survive post-mumps encephalitis before the mumps vaccine became readily available. It wasn’t a cute childhood disease!

Inhospitable America

“If that mad man wins the presidency, I’m moving to Europe,” Marjorie told me over a plate of dim sum in Boston’s Chinatown. Very pregnant and trying to manage her rambunctious two-year-old, she showed no sign of hyperbole. I, too, had given thought to leaving the U.S. if Trump were to win, but I still couldn’t wrap my mind around his victory being more than a dystopian fantasy. I had, however, underwritten the cost of new passports for my children and grandchildren and had given some thought to Canada—after all, I had family there from my father’s side. Damn, Canada is cold in the winter. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that!

But it did. Trump won; my niece, seven months pregnant, packed up her home and moved with her husband to Denmark. I stayed in the States, groaning under the weight of my political angst, but doing little about it. I decided that the first stop on my journey around the world would be a visit with Marjorie, who had become a heroine to me.

My plane arrived late to Iceland’s Reykjavik airport. I ran past the counter selling fresh smoked salmon, which I had been craving for weeks, and hurried on to my gate. To my delight, the plane to Copenhagen was delayed (thanks be to the travel gods), and I went back to buy a fresh bagel and salmon sandwich . . . only to find the gate closed upon my return. The counter agent told me that, if I ran, I could catch another flight to Denmark at a different gate. Once at the new gate, I was sent back to the original gate and, already out of breath, I began running in the reverse direction, hearing, “Passenger Garrison, please return to gate 51D.” I waved to the agents at the help desk as I ran by. The delayed flight was not a good omen from the travel gods, after all.

Now here I must interject a non-sequitur into the story, because there is an important reason that I was able to make the flight. European, and in fact most airports outside the U.S., have two crucial amenities: no charge for carts, and an excess of small complimentary handcarts for carry-on luggage once you pass through security. If I had had to lug my carry-on, bulging with squishies and gifts for friends, without the aid of a push cart, while racing up and down through three terminals in Reykjavik, I would have gone to the hospital, not to Denmark. Fast forward to 2022. Has anything changed at America’s airports? We wear masks—carts are still not free and America is still not hospitable.