My wife, Judi, and I are taking a break from our over-booked schedules in relaxing Puerto Rico. Our schedules are over-booked because we both struggle with setting appropriate boundaries when it comes to our vocations. Isn’t that much nicer than saying we are workaholics? I know everyone is busy and no one wants to hear about my schedule. I don’t want to hear about it either…I’m on vacation for crying out loud.
Puerto Rico is not a destination Judi and I have dreamt of for years. It just never made our top-ten list. I will travel to any destination with eagerness, but Judi likes her amenities. Puerto Rico has them. A missionary who worked with our in-laws retired to Puerto Rico. His family has created a space for weary travelers in ministry…for free! Their home has two floors with separate entrances. It is built into the hills overlooking the ocean. We have a large, exceedingly comfortable place with a full kitchen. We can’t afford a place this nice, but we humbly accept the hospitality.
I don’t know why Puerto Rico never made it higher on our travel list. It is a beautiful Caribbean island with modern facilities. It is a perfect blend of amenities and adventures to keep us both happy.
Every vacation Judi and I take has hiking as a significant component. Puerto Rico is no exception. Judi researches potential trails, an activity that seems more exhausting than the hike itself, and we head out to hoof the trail. Our first adventure is Humacao Nature Reserve, not selected for it’s outstanding vistas or manicured trails, but for it’s proximity to Marshalls. Sometimes practicality wins the day.
Our hike begins with a desperate search for the baño (“bathroom,” one of the few words I know in Spanish). We cover more altitude changes in this pre-hike than we do the rest of the day. Judi, who always asks for directions the moment she feels disoriented, asks construction workers on top of a building to guide us. The only guy who understands English points us in the right direction and suffers significant abuse from his friends for knowing English and speaking to the American woman.
We find our trail and head off for healthy exercise to justify our eating (probably a later blog). A sign indicates that the preserve closes at 3:30. A distressing revelation since it is already 2:30. At a brisk pace we try to make the most of the 60 minutes allotted to us. Fifteen minutes into the trek we encounter an open steel gate with a sign “reminding” us that the preserve closes at 3:00! Our 60 minutes are cut in half and we have already used half of what remains. No problem…seven and a half minutes in and seven and a half minutes out. Seven minutes in the heavens open and shower us with liquid blessings. We brought no rain gear.
We huddle together under the palm fronds and pretend it is keeping us dry. Knowing the clock is ticking, we start playing leap-frog to potential shelters back toward the gate. A mongoose scampers across the trail and into a hole, being more adept at rain avoidance than we are. (I don’t think I would fit in the hole.) The rain stops as suddenly as it started so we get back onto the trail. Ahead of us, in the middle of the road, lies a large log, apparently knocked down by the mini-storm. Suddenly the log levitates by a few inches and grows legs. We are looking at the largest iguana we have ever seen. Undoubtedly driven out to sun himself after the downpour. We don’t make it back in time, but no one is manning the gate.
I rarely get bored on airplanes. I find them to be stimulation-rich environments. Sitting next to my lovely bride should be sufficient stimulation, but she was busy reading a book, something I have never done very well on airplanes. Periodically, she would stop to read me a paragraph – always interesting – but would then bury her nose back into the book. I had conquered several games of solitaire and sudoku, but quickly tired of the mind numbing repetition of the games. I contemplated mischief like poking holes in the bottom of the barf bags, but decided I was getting too old for such nonsense. I fell back to one of my all-time favorite activities – people watching. Airports and airplanes rank among the highest locales for people watching (no pun intended). Other than a psychology convention it is difficult to imagine a more diverse collection of oddballs. Unfortunately, my selection appeared quite limited on this day.
A young man was poking a young woman in front of him. I could not tell if the woman was his daughter of his sister. I finally decided that siblings was the least-creepy option so she became his sister and all the joy of watching them dissipated. I settled on two men behind me that I could hear but not see. They were both business men swapping lies about their respective trades. I know they were lies because no one who is as successful as these two prevaricatorssits in the cattle-car section of a plane. At some point they discovered they are both former military. Now things got more fun. They had two venues to lie about and apparently there is a rush of testosterone that accompanies military reminiscence. Their voices jumped up in volume (making my job as eves-dropper easier) and down in tenor (apparently simulating “real men”). Before they had politely listened to the whoppers they were being fed, but now they started challenging and correcting each other. It was like war had been silently declared and these guys took their posts. When a cease fire was finally declared I settled back to contemplating crossword puzzles, certain that nothing was going to be better than the skirmish behind me…then it happened.
The shoulders of the woman in front of us started to shake (let’s call her Betty). My blood quickened as I knew we were in for the mother of all distractions. My suspicions were confirmed when the flight attendant (let’s call her Helga) showed up and started to rapid fire phrases like, “Bag in seat in front of you,” and “Bathroom is open.” It was too late. Betty spewed forth like Vesuvius. The man sitting on her right jumped up and looked disgusted. On her left was her significant other/boyfriend/husband/BAE (insert your preferred term here). He sat there by her side and took it like a trooper. He was a man among men as he allowed the right side of his body to be coated with some of the vilest stuff God ever thought up. Helga rushed back with paper towels for him to clean up while Betty finished evacuating her system. Helga may have done better with a push broom and and driveway squeegee. After Betty had dropped two pants sizes from loss of bodily fluids, she got up to go to the lavatory Helga had reserved for her. She was covered chin to knees. In one sense she appeared inside out, wearing all the inside stuff on the outside. Her knight in sticky armor got her fresh clothes from her suitcase so she could change in the bathroom. She must have a job as a contortionist to change clothes in an airplane bathroom – but that seems like a topic for a different blog.
I sat back contentedly waiting for the hose down and hazmat suits. Boredom gone.
One of the luxuries of our time in Burundi is having our laundry done for us. I don’t know what they do to the clothes, but they get them impressively clean (pressed is not an option). Once or twice a week we would all gather our dirty laundry and place it in a pile for them to clean. A day later, all the clothes would reappear inside out. I don’t know why they would be inside out, but I’m guessing it has something to do with their secret formula for getting clothes so clean. I discovered it is important to pay attention to the orientation of your clothes so your pockets are not on the outside and it is not impossible to zip your pants – seriously, try it. It is very frustrating.
As exciting as laundry is, that is not really to point of this blog. Since all of our clothes were washed together it was important to be able to identify your clothes. This was very challenging for one member of our team. I won’t tell you who so Bane will not be embarrassed. Apparently this member had not seen his own clothes before he came on the trip, so he saw laundry days as a flea market where you just take what you want. He was easy to spot, because you just looked for the person who was wearing your clothes. (He is also the only black man on our team so it was like playing where’s Waldo if he didn’t have on your clothes.)
I wear a t-shirt everyday, as do all civilized men. I wear sleeveless t-shirts known by the unfortunate moniker of “wife beater” or “beater” for short. After the first laundry day I noticed my beater supply was getting low. Hmmm. On the next laundry day I saw my black beater was in the mix. I was excited, because the black ones are my favorite. The next morning I grabbed a shower and tugged on my fresh t-shirt. I instantly started to complain that “they” shrunk my shirt. Judi took one look and started to laugh. Picture the Michelin man in a size small speedo, but for the upper body. Though sleeveless, this shirt managed to keep my arms nearly straight out on the sides giving the Impression of a chubby, fleshy airplane wearing a corset. She said, “Nobody can shrink a shirt that much. It’s not your shirt.” She was right…again. I told her that if I could get out of the shirt, she could give it to Bane to add to his ever increasing collection.
It is fairly rare to see a white person in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. The more rural and primitive the area, the rarer the sightings become. Everywhere we went in Burundi children would point and yell “muzungu, muzungu.” Muzungu (alt. sp. Mzungu, Umuzungu) means white person. It literally means “wanderer” and was first applied to the European explorers who wandered around Africa. In fact, the root word zunguzungu means “dizzy” or “one who spins around in place.” So, obviously, the term can be used affectionately or derisively. I choose to hear it affectionately – what’s not to love.
Where we stay is significantly in the boonies, even for Africa, so muzungu sighting are especially exciting. “Muzungu” is a word we heard a lot as we zoomed by in our van. Apparently, many did not realize that muzungus know how to move about without the assistance of a motorized vehicle.
Every day I had to take a brief walk of about a kilometer to get medicine that I was keeping at a clinic in a nearby compound. I felt a bit like a moose walking down the main street of a city. The locals knew I existed, but they had no idea why I was out walking around – I simply did not belong on the mountain trails of Africa without an appropriate black escort. All activity would stop as the locals stare at the muzungu who got loose from his black care takers. In a car, I am a fun novelty. On foot in the mountains, I am a bizarre aberration that needs to find a vehicle, preferably with a black driver.
We met the Governor today. It’s hard to remember the last time I saw that many teeth. He was a very likable guy and did a good job at the infomercial he gave us about Burundi.
In the afternoon, we unpacked all the clothes, tools, and supplies we brought with us. We don’t distribute directly to citizens, but give to the NGO we work with so they can assess the needs. The tools are used by THARS to maintain facilities. One of my favorite parts of coming here is showing the local handyman (fundi) how to use the tools we brought. Johanna, the local fundi, was so excited he hugged a level and a square and danced a jig. It is wonderful to see significant life change with such a simple gesture. Their joy at the simple is humbling.
Typically, a Sunday morning service will last for several hours, but today we went to the French Church – because French is so much easier for us than Kirundi and Swahili. We enjoyed the four-language service since one of the languages was English and the sermon was good. My favorite part was the little guy who did laps around the congregation stopping on every lap to attempt the theft of Chris’s water bottle. He never succeeded, but never gave up.
After church, we were able treated to a trip to the animal museum (zoo). Think of it as a petting zoo with animals that can kill you. Panther, snake, monkey, chimpanzee, crocodile – we touched them all. One chimp would show us where she wanted scratched then lean against the bars so we could service her. I never thought I would be scratching the armpits of wildlife while I am here, but I am game for whatever comes up.
After lunch, we left the oppressive heat of Bujumbura for Gitega in the much cooler mountains. Normally, I love this trip, but I ended up in the middle of the back seat sitting on the hump. As the tallest member of our group I got an excellent view of the ditches and a butt that was numb the rest of the day.
Day 2 of travel. We arrive in Bujumbura, Burundi after 23 hours of travel. We were all so exhausted that our biggest job was to stay awake until bedtime so we could start the transition to Burundi time. I laid on top of my bed and dumped gallons of sweat from my pores. I must have chugged a lot of liquid after we landed, because heaven knows the moisture did not come from the plane of dehydration. I’m not saying it was hot in the equatorial city of Bujumbura, I’m saying that Lucifer himself would have stripped down to his BVDs and poured cold water over his head to survive. I didn’t put the mosquito netting over me since I thought any layer of covering would be the final straw. At some point I fell asleep, or passed out from heat exhaustion, and slept soundly until 2:00 am when my CPAP battery died. I stumbled around in the darkness trying to find the bathroom, then finally peed into what, I am fairly certain, was the wrong receptacle. I got up at 5:00 to take a shower since I could not get sleep without my CPAP and noticed a host of red welts on my legs. I guess sleeping without the mosquito netting was not such a good idea.
Saturday found most of us awake bright and early. The 5am call to prayer at the local mosque probably helped with that. After breakfast, we exchanged American dollars for Burundian francs. This is where you walk in with a handful of bills and walk out with a grocery bag full of bills. It’s great. You feel so rich when you can talk about spending money in the millions and have more money than wallet–a condition with which I rarely suffer.
My heart sank a bit when I heard our host was taking us to a wedding function known as a dowry ceremony. Great! I travel half-way around the world to attend a boring dress-up event while I am jet lagged out of my gourd. I envisioned awkward social interactions in a language I don’t understand with people I do not know. This ranks just above jamming a sharp pencil in my ear and just below hitting my hand with a hammer in my list of desirable life events.
I’m so glad I did not opt for smashing my hand. The evening was delightful. It was an engagement party with a cultural twist. The families of the bride and groom sit across a lawn from each other for a mock negotiation for the bride. The groom’s family asks to have the bride for their son. The bride’s family refuses, and negotiations ensue in earnest. Negotiations last about 90 minutes until an accord is reached. What follows is celebration through dance and music in traditional outfits. Eventually the bride is presented and the celebration started anew with fresh vigor. When a group of Africans decide to party it is a sight to behold.
Day one of travel. Relatively uneventful…if you don’t count the usual foibles of travel: missing passports and vaccination cards, broken straps threatening to spew more than a half-ton of luggage onto I95, (not to mention the risk of giving Fred a coronary). I thought I handled everything quite well given the 87 minutes of sleep I had before the trip.
Ethiopian Airlines always promises a unique traveling adventure. There is a reason they are “reasonably priced.” They utilized a two-prong approach to keep us travelers on our toes.
Phase 1 was feeding us salty foods, but forgetting to provide liquid refreshment afterwards. Phase two was putting Binladen’s evil sister, (we’ll call her Helga), in charge of the water rations. She was having a bad day. At one point a small child from the seat in front of me wandered into Helga’s territory, the aisle. Helga slowly lowered herself to the child’s level and fixed her with a withering gaze. In a soft, steely voice she informed the frightened child that she needed to return to her seat and not interfere with Helga again. A chill ran down my spine as I watched a traumatized child slink back into her seat too frightened to cry. Later, I tried to take matters into my own hands with the water. I strolled up to the “kitchen” area and discovered a water bottle with several ounces still in it. I quickly poured some into a cup with fantasies of slaking my thirst at last. I was 2 ounces into my pour when I heard, “No, no, no! That is not for you.” Busted by Helga, she grabbed the bottle and the cup away from me. Like my brave cabin mate, I too refrained from crying…but mostly because I had no moisture in my system.