TRACKS IN THE SNOW

My son and I went out for a winter walk in the woods this morning. It was a quick walk as he had to get dressed up and drive to Reading for a funeral. A very sad funeral- that of a 25 year old friend who simply sat back on the sofa while watching the Super Bowl game and died. His death was caused by a rare virus of the heart, which no one knew he had. His passing shook Bryce’s world and those of his friends. “We aren’t supposed to die this young,” they think. Indeed.

Snow had fallen a handful of days before this morning’ s walk. In less than 2 miles, we saw so many animal tracks it was phenomenal. Deer, turkey, coyote, bobcat. We found “highways” where herds walked through on their way to dense evergreens thickets where they yard up during these frigid days and nights. Comfort in numbers. We saw what appeared to be a small deer dragging its one leg, perhaps injured during hunting season and now crippled, struggling to get trough the winter. Another spot we saw where it looked like a coyote had laid down and made a rounded depression and perhaps scratched his hind quarter. Years ago, I followed the tracks of a grouse in the snow, only to come up to a log where it looked like there had been a struggle, blood drops stained the white snow, feather tuffs sprinkled the snow’s surface. Here, on this banquet log, a raptor had enjoyed a meal. This was the grouse’s last minutes on earth and I stood there staring, privy to a life passing.

I said to Bryce, “It is amazing to travel in a snow covered world and witness all the life that is going on unbeknownst to us. There is little sign when there is no snow on the ground or it would take a much more educated woods detector to read what the animals were doing. In the snow, we get glimpses into their private lives. Leaving tracks in the snow of what occurred here as they go on with their daily life.

I am reminded of that song, “Dust in the Wind, All we are is dust in the wind.” Twenty-somethings have a hard time wrapping their heads around death. They just haven’t experienced much of it, most of them, and maybe never up to this point. Bryce told me that he and his girlfriend talked about it, “Where is Mike now? He was here just days ago, alive, big, real. And now he is gone. Where did he go? Is he in the air around us, his spirit, invisible to us? Is he is the heavens, as a star? Is he no where?”

I walked along nodding my head. Yes, I asked all these questions myself when both my parents died when I was in my twenties like Bryce. I remember hiking in the High Sierra being up top of 12,000 ft passes, some of the closest physically I had ever been to “heaven” and I shouted, “Where are you mom and dad? Can you hear me?”

I advised Bryce to read some books on death and dying, accounts of those who have gone on to the next dimension and returned to tell us a little about their experience. If nothing else, it is a comfort to read. Bryce said, “But no one knows what happens.” No, no one is sure. But you have to come to some place of acceptance and you do need to look at you own life, those of us who remain behind, and think about the tracks you are making in the snow.

Our family has recently surfaced out of an bad experience where one of us was severely wronged. It was painful knowing someone’s heart was taken advantage of and their kindness deeply violated. It made us think about what is “FAIR” in life. I believe that shit happens all the time, some of it is within our control, other times we feel as though we are victims. I have lived long enough to understand and believe that we may not be able to do anything about what happens to us, but we can have a say in how we react to it. That is within our control. We have a huge role in how we choose to live our lives.

It is never too early to be made conscious of the fact that none of us know how much time we have here. We should not put off really living, actualized, conscious living where we are not just coasting. We should always strive to be kind, fair, honest, and respect one another. We leave our footprints on the lives of every human soul we encounter. Our impact continues long after the snow has melted and we are gone. Who do we want to be? How do we want to be remembered? There is an ancient Indian proverb that goes, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Cutting my Husband’s Hair- A Marriage Time Gauge

When my husband’s grey hair gets long, it sticks straight out like he inserted his finger into an electrical socket. The tufts of hair above his ears stick out like a clown. He used to have thick, curly dark brown hair that looked gorgeous when it grew long. Back then, he looked like something out of “Braveheart.” Now he looks like something out of “One Few Over the Cuckoos Nest.” When I can no longer stand to look at him, I find the time to cut it.

Cutting my husband’s hair is one of my gauge’s in life, like children growing up. No parent can deny that the years are not speeding by when they see startling and rapid growth before their very eyes. Our single friends can deny anything is happening, that change is not occuring for a decade or more and then get slammed with a shocker. Few things shock parents when it comes to the passing of time. And I also bear witness to it when I peer into my husband’s pink scalp, wet and oily after he dampens his hair for a haircut. His scalp is more visible every time I give him a hair cut. More scalp, less hair, and it turns paler, losing its pigment.

My mother taught me how to cut hair as soon as Todd and I became serious in our relationship. I have been doing it now for thirty two years. Until my son decided he would be cooler with a “man bun,” I cut his hair too. Up until he was 23.

Bryce gave me grief during every single hair cut. He questioned what I was doing, how much I am taking off. He’d make me pause and run to the window on the sunroom, and check it out. “OK, looking good,” he’d compliment me. I tolerated the questioning and the doubting. I knew I was good. And, I told both of them anytime they wanted to go to Paul, the Kempton Barber, I’d even give them the money. I threatened for years, “This is the last time I am doing this. You will shut your mouth while I cut or I will not cut your hair.”

My boys secretely loved their haircuts or they wouldn’t keep coming back. It’s not a question of money when you can get a good professional cut around here for $8.00.

I like to cut my husband’s hair because it gives me a sense of power. I am in charge of his hygiene. And I like that. After all, I have to look at him.

I take his chin and move it around. I nudge his head. It is the only time I get to “push my husband around physically,” ha ha, albeit gently. I reprimand him for moving, for scratching the itchy cut hairs on his neck, for not keeping his head in the position where I move it to, for talking when I am working on his moustache, for petting the kitty with his foot. Most of the time though, he sits quietly like a good boy.

For many years, I made him separate his legs and I came into his crotch to get close to the front of his head to cut. He loved that. He pested me repeatedly about cutting his hair naked. “Take off your shirt,” he’d plead. I looked at him crooked. “I have a job to do. This is not fun and games.” Now I cut from the sides.

As time went by, I decided to cut his beard too, and then his eyebrows. I haven’t had to deal with the nose or the ears yet. I am not sure how I feel about the nose and the ears. I will cross that bridge when I come to it. There are many older men walking around with eyebrow hairs that curl and cover their eyes and actually impair their sight. I cannot for the life of me, understand why that is OK with them? They trim and manage their nails. They don’t let them grow and curl like crazy millionaire Howard Hughes did. No husband of mine is going to walk around with gorilla eyebrows. That’s why I get the scissors out myself and get the job done.

I tell my husband that his hygene is a reflection on his wife. I tell him that he will not be one of these greasy old men who don’t wash their hair, but comb their hair back making separated lines with the comb that remain, thinking if they comb it and it lays flat, it looks neat. It does not. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU DID NOT WASH YOUR HAIR FOR AGES!

When Todd picks up little balls of severed beard hair off his lap and remarks, “this stuff is like steel wool.” I respond, “I know. You rub it against my shoulder every night and I feel like I am getting road rash.”

My life as a barber made a 180 when I discovered and purchased a hair cutting/styling kit from Amazon. The electric razor kit comes with multi colored tips that snap on with measurements for different cutting lengths. There is even a tapered one for around the ears. I get such joy out of choosing colored tips to professionalize my work, even though I can never remember what length I use on his beard and have to make multiple tries.

I had a sharp learning curve with this tool the first few times. “Whoops!” I said when I saw a whole bunch of scalp skin appear after I took a pass and only 1/8 inch of hair remained. It looked as if I was aiming for the military shaved look on the sides. I HAD to do the other side once I slipped on the first to even it out. He knows when I begin to laugh out loud that something detrimental to his looks has just occurred.

Todd flinches every time I cut his beard- for 32 years now. He cannot relax. He says he can FEEL the scissors or the shaver on his skin. “Don’t make me look gay,” he begs, and cut it too short. He used to sport longish mountainman beards but not anymore. I think you have to be more careful when you are an older man. You can look shabby and downright scary with very little length.

He really tightens up when its time to trim his moustache. He is terrified I will cut his lip although I never did. I only ever accidently snipped his ear once and did not even break the skin.

When it is nice out, I cut his hair on the grass front yard and run a cord out for my electric hair cutter. If it’s cold, the job is done in the bathroom. He has to shake out the rug afterwards, sweep up the grey steel wool hairs with the dust pan and brush. I ask him afterwards, “Well, how does it look?”

I didn’t look at it.” That’s how much he cares about how he looks.

When he finally does look in the mirror, he always says that it looks good and thanks me. I don’t look for thanks. Remember, I do this for myself. For my own personal satisfaction.

I cut a few other men’s hair over the years and one in particular felt intimate. (even though I did not insert myself between his legs!) It IS a personal task, cutting someone’s hair or it can be, I guess, if there is already emotions in the air. One time, my one friend had his hair cut by a woman/mother of a young child who was a sexy babe and by the sounds of it, perhaps a flirt. His wife was not thrilled with this act and so he teased her and said he didn’t really mind the breast milk dripping in his face while she cut the front.

When I am done with my husband’s hair, I turn his chair around so I can see his neck in the light and look for blackheads that run along a crease in his thick muscular neck. A blacksmith and a chainaw carver ‘s neck gets dirty often. I attack it with an extracting instrument and he REALLY recoils then, for it hurts.

It sounds gross and it is gross. Who else can you get to do this at a place you cannot reach or even see other than your wife? I went to a face skincare salon one time and she attacked my nose with a blackhead remover and I never even saw a blackhead there. I came home and told Todd, “She would have a field day with you.” Of course, my husband would never go to a woman like that. Too personal and embarrassing. And here lies the beauty of a marriage, especially a long marriage. We watch our spouses grow older, their hair thin, their eyebrows bush out and they see changes in us too and IT IS OK. There is no pretending. A few of us, a very few of us, even get to cut their hair, and trim their beards and snip their eyebrows and even more is revealed. We are both growing older and for the lucky ones of us who are well loved, we don’t even care because it is happening together.

And I look at my husband after his hair is so neatly cut and his beard is neaty trimmed and he is so handsome and I tell him, “After that trim, you look good enough to fuck,” and that is what he cares about most, thirty two years ago, now, and probably thirty two years from now. So he sits there like a good boy and let’s me attach him with the trimmer and the scissors and the blackhead extractor. “Whatever makes the wife happy.” It did not take thirty- two years to learn that, but then again, he is a fast learner.

A New Bracelet

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I had just finished reading, “The Orphan Master’s Son” on my last flight home. It was such a good book; the kind where you can easily and completely rudely ignore the person you are traveling with just so you can continue reading, as well as risk nausea as the plane lands and takes off because you can’t bear to put the book down. But it was a such a disturbing book as there was much torture in it taking place in North Korea. The book was on the same level as “Unbroken,” and the accounts of the Japanese POW torturing of Leo Zaperini. I couldn’t shake “The Orphan Master’s Son,” even after I finished it. I found myself driving and walking and thinking about the sorrow of to what extent our species can hurt one another. It made me very sad to think about the human condition and how helpless we can sometimes feel. And then I looked down at my wrist, where I saw a new bracelet from my friend Tim, and warmth and love and hope flooded back into me.

My friend, Tim Brick, came into my life only a few years ago and when I think how many times I have actually even been in his company, it has remarkably been only three. When I returned to Traverse City to write for the magazine. Yet he has made a huge impact. This bike shop owner initially helped me and my family by lending us bicycles to cycle the Leland Peninsula in Traverse City, Michigan, when on assignment for Adventure Cyclist Magazine. While there, I learned of his background and history and how he helps so many mentally and physically handicapped folks get onto bikes. I went on to write a feature story about his generosity for Traverse Magazine.

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Tim and I have become very good friends, as I have returned to TC to write multiple stories. While visiting, Tim shared stories about his wonderful mother, Mary Jane, who began adult homes for mentally handicapped folks in TC and taught him to have a huge heart. Right before she passed, she got the brilliant idea to melt down some of her jewelry and have a jeweler make six crosses for her six children as a gift. Besides being a part of her, she would leave them with an important message. She loved a poem called, “The Dash,” about the part of your life between your birth date and your death date. What were you going to do with this time that was- the dash? Make it good. I noticed Tim’s cross with the dash on it, as soon as I met him.

I wear nearly two dozen silver bracelets on my wrist- 20 of them are presents from friends. cindyrosstraveler.com/2012/08/25/silverbracelets/

So Tim got the idea to melt down his old silver and gold jewelry and take it to the same jeweler. He shared my stories of Michigan with the jeweler so he could see how much I love the area and the people and told him to have fun with it.

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The result is a beautiful bracelet that he gifted to me for my 60th birthday. It has a disc of gold cherries, as Traverse City is the cherry capital of the world; two other charms spell out “Love” and “Michigan” in the shape of the Upper Peninsula and the main part of the state. There is a Petrosky stone- a fossil- found only in this area-, and a gold “Brick Wheels” symbol, Tim’s store’s logo.

It is most difficult for me to look down at this bracelet on my wrist at any given moment and not feel my friend’s love and support. There are times when all of us feel fatigued in our work and mission, feel doubt and feel challenged. Tim makes me want to be a better human being. He does that for me, just by being in my life and being my friend. His beautiful bracelet, however, is a constant reminder, to keep working to make my life, “The Dash” the best possible- and reminds me that I am loved. With that, we can do anything.

The Way to Become Immortal

We heard the crash of glass just as we were heading out the front door to go for a walk, the children and I. We had just finished decorating our Christmas tree and were wanting some exercise and air. There it lay on the floor amongst the broken shards of glass, lying in a pool of muddy water. Todd had dug rocks out of the garden to stabilize the tree trunk in the bucket and the water laying on top of the handmade braided wool rug was deep. I raced to the cupboard in the bathroom to fetch towels and threw them down in an attempt to soak up the water. As I was patting the towels, I commented, “The last time this happened my dad died of cancer.”

My mother cried when her tree fell over that year as it added insult to injury, the whole family knowing it would be Dad’s last Christmas tree to see. My dad neglected to tie up our tree that year as did mine this year.

“What, do you think someone is going to die now?” my son asked.

“No, but it made me think of that sad day.”

As my son lifted up the fallen tree, I could see which heirlom glass ornamnets did not make the fall. The blown egg with the rapidiograph ink drawing on it dating back to my art school years lay in tiny fragments. I thought of that dear artist friend who made it for me every Christmas for forty years. Even though I had completely lost touch with her, I still warmly remembered her friendship and the support she gave me during that time in my life. She may be completely forgotten from now on.

Someone said to me. “They are just things.” This is true, but they are special things. All things are not created equal.

When we decorate the tree, there are memories after memories that flood my brain as we hang up the hooks and finger each ornament. I relay stories to the kids as they come up- places we’ve been, where we purchased ornaments to remember the good times. Skin kayaks and fur mittens from our trip to Alaska, colored straw fish from Hawaii. Stuffed fabic ornaments covered in embroidery and French kots that my sister painstakingly made for me many years ago when she was crafty. Glass hearts with snow-covered mountains painted on them by our mountian loving friend. My husbands’ first carved wooden ornaments are there, crude and rough. The kids laughed when they compared them to his magnificent chainsaw carvings of today- how far his work has come. There are the homemade ones by the children- their photo glued to cardboard and surrounded by a circle of cotton balls. Our first Christmas as a married couple with our photo in it. There is a tiny wool Christmas stocking that my mother received in the hospital when she was delivering me, a holiday baby, that did not break. Thank goodness. So many of my ornmants are from my mother’s tree, as she died thirty-five years ago and we four chidlren divided up her ornamnts. Of course, I always think of my mother and my own childhood as I decorate my tree. That is a given.

My kids asked if I would pass down my ornaments.

“When I am dead, you’ll get them,” I informed them.

When we first got married, Todd and I began to design an annual ornament and give them to our friends and family as a present. Todd made them out of wood, I painted them and decorated them with fabric paint. When the kids were at home, they added their artistic flair. When we had children, we decided to put one aside for each of them. Then when they left home in their early 20’s and had their own tree, they would have a head start on their decorations with a box of over 20.

My mother’s friend began my Christmas ornament collection when I was fifteen years old. She gave me a box of them and said it wasn’t too early to begin my own collection. I still hang the tiny rabbit fur mouse up and the tiny baby in a half walnut shell that acts as its cradle and think of her and my childhood every year.

As the years went by, we tried to come up with an ornament idea that related to a major event in our lives that past year. They would not be just any Christmas tree ornaments- but a carved llama the year we finished hiking the Continental Divide Trail, a manatee when we went to Florida and swam with them. A Thai long boat the year we traveled to Thailand , a carved wooden Swiss Army knife the year we went to Switzerland. There is a wooden painted goat the year Sierra got her goats, a tiny replica book with a printed paper cover the year “Scraping Heaven” came into print, a wooden canoe the year we paddled the 100 mile Wilderness Trail in the Florida Everglades, a wooden slice of pizza the year we went to Sicily, a wooden puffin when we went to Iceland, a wooden chili pepper the year we cycled New Mexico’s Great Divide Mt bike trail, a wooden seashell for the year we did the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the trails’ symbol; a wooden Temple “T” when Sierra first attended that university, a ping pong paddle when Sierra and Eben taught English in China and we went to spend the holidays there. This year is a wooden tiered wedding cake with glitter icing to commemorate our first child’s wedding this past year!

It goes on and on- 25 years of memories for them, 32 for Todd and I. I know there are friends out there that I have lost touch with that still think of us when they decorate their tree. My Aunt Dot calls me every Christmas as she decorates her tree, as she wants us to know that she is grateful for us in her lives and her many handmade ornamants. The way to become immortal, perhaps, is via Christmas tree ornaments.

My kids have yet to take their personal box of ornaments. They may have moved out of the house but they don’t yet have their own tree and still come back to the homestead to celebrate the holidays. I suppose that will happen when they get start their own families.

The edge of the braided wool rug is propped up with a stick and the ceramic heater is shooting heat under the rug. The living room smells like smelly dog. But the tree is back up and most of the ornaments are hanging on the tree. No one close to us is dying this Christmas (that I know of) and it has been a great year. That is all that matters.

SPARE CHANGE

My husband and I crouched on the braided wool rug in the living room and worked together with the small change, separating nickles, dimes and quarters. I built piles and and counted in groups of 4’s for the quarters, ten- dimes and twenty- nickles while Todd stuffed the paper money holders. I grabbed silver change by the fistfuls from the glass pickle jar by my side. On its front is a taped paper sign that reads “BAJA BANK.” We created this bank 32 years ago after we were first married. After completing the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail as a married couple, vacationing in Baja Mexico was to be our next trip.

We did not have much money back then. We lived in a tiny 500 square foot cabin that had no central heat or plumbing. We were saving money to buy land and build our own log home for our future family. We figured we would not be able to go away on a trip unless we created some way to collect extra money unnoticably. But this dream trip did not just get put on the back burner. It was removed from the stove, for the last 32 years.

As I separted the change, I found stray foreign coins: Czech Republic, Morocco, Thailand, etc. from our trips around the world with our children in the last 30 years. Now our children are the same age as we were when we first created the BAJA BANK, and they need to save and watch their spending and plan carefully for their futures, while Todd and I are more relaxed and secure.

Todd told me that he used to tap into the BAJA BANK and withdrawl every now and then over the course of our early marriage, when work was not steady. I had not known this or had forgotten it. In recent years, as we grew more financially sound, it merely served as a source for stuffing plastic Easter eggs for our kids for egg hunts and became just a place to throw spare change. The bank under the desk went virtually unnoticed in these later years when we had more than enough money to live. Until recently.

We are finally heading to Baja Mexico this winter as a wedding anniversary/birthday trip. That destination just moved up the list of priority vacations after all these years. Cashing in the BAJA BANK seems like the appropriate thing to do. But now, ironically, after saving spare change for 30+ years, we do not need it. I think we will spend that spare change in Mexico just for old times sake and to celebrate thirty years of marriage but will write a check for that exact same amount and give it to a homeless shelter. Somehow, paying it forward as an expression of gratitude seems like the right thing to do.

Building a Road in the Name of Jesus

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Today’s destination in “Magical Kenya” is the remote and infrequently visited Ruma National Park, home of the rare Roan Antelope. It is obvious it is not one of the more popular parks by the state of their toilets at the entrance station. This one simply has a hole roughly hacked into the tile floor. No porcelain squat toilet with ridges where you are to place your feet. At one time, it probably had a western toilet atop its gaping hole but no more. This should have been an indication of the conditions ahead.

It is the rainy season and although the frequent bursts of rain produce lush gorgeous green land, they can make roads impassible and rather quickly. Our bus driver, Tony, swerves and curves as if his van is drunk as we look for animals in the bush. After not spotting a Roan Antelope but many others and one treat in particular, a leopard, we are not disappointed. Our guide spots him lounging on a hefty branch of an acacia tree, his mighty paws and forelegs hanging lazily down, while an impala carcass sits stuffed in a nearby crotch of two branches. The leopard does not have to stretch far to enjoy breakfast in bed. We were just feeling like we had a good adventure when the van comes to a quick standstill. Tony guns the engine and tires spin, shooting mud and water up like a geyser. We are stuck badly.

Tony gets out to access the situation. He walks down the four wheel drive road looking for rocks and comes back with a few pathetic small ones in the palm of his hand. That’s not going to do anything we women say inside the van. He removes the shovel from the back end of the vehicle and pathetically attempts to fill in the water holes. The mud is sticky and dense and he chips at it like concrete.

Call for assistance!” Suzanne, our spokesperson from Kenyan Tourism instructs.

We pile out, as the van feels stifling hot, despite the fact that some are unnerved knowing the leopard could be nearby.

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As Tony works with our guide to free us, we hear a motor from behind. A large white bus approaches with the words, “School Bus” written on the front- seventy elementary school boys from a missionary school out for a field trip to see wild animals.

The teachers pile out as well as the bus driver and guide. They have already gotten stuck three times but managed to physically push the big bus through. They have no idea why the park officials did not warn them of the conditions ahead.

They want to strike a deal before they will help us. Suzanne says, “How about doing it in the name of Jesus? You help us just to be kind?” Indeed, on their shirts are printed the words, “Impacting Lives, Expressing Mercy, in Jesus’s Name.” We have them there. They consent.

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They first attempt to bodily push our van out. The females teachers help out right alongside the men.

When that does not work, they creep the bus closer and attach a wide nylon tow rope to the front of the bus and pull us backwards. Cheers! But then the men decide we must go forward again through what we just got pulled out of! All the women protest. “You will get stuck again!” they say. I think Tony should at least aim his one tire for the higher dry ground and the other for the section inbetween the tire tracks, but I certainly don’t push my idea and discuss the situation amongst ourselves.

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The teachers are exasperated. They stand with their hands on their hips while the men decide to go forward again, right back into the deep muddy chasm of a track. They body language is screaming, “This makes no sense! This will not work! This is stupid!,” but clearly in this patriarchal society, driving and deciding procedure for this type of situation is clearly “men’s work.” Our suggestions fall on deaf ears. Suzanne once again instructs, “Call for help.”

The men take off their shoes, roll up their pants cuffs and get into the muddy sloppy challenge ahead.

Before long, it is obvious that the men want to basically build a new road, as ridiculous as it sounds to us women. They disappear round the bend and come back with large flat slabs of busted up concrete in their arms. Who knows how they found them. They toss them into the deep water and they splash with a kerplunk! The women teachers are good sports, despite the fact the men will not listen and in their dresses, they too help the cause by carrying slabs of concrete.

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We writers go back and talk to the cute little boys hanging out of the windows, arms draped down the side of the bus, crowding at the door, dying to get out and a few claiming they must pee in order to break free of the prison of the bus. We have fun shooting their portraits. They ask our names and call to us individually, waving.

When Tony finally calls and a tractor appears, it pulls us through the mess in short order. This entire event took close to two hours.

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We travel writers just observed and documented the whole event in photos. And, filled out a Visitor Evaluation Form where they got an earful, from the state of the bathrooms to the state of the roads. We did find it fascinating to watch the men’s behavior and the way they attempted to rectify the situation. Suzanne had it right from the get-go. Just call for help. But then again, what do we women know. At least no one got picked off by a leopard in the process.

A Memorable Visit to Mama Sarah Obama’s Home & School, Kogelo, Kenya

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As far ahead as we can see, there are children, walking hand in hand on both sides of the tarmac road. Small groups of boys and girls in bright blue, clean uniforms- girls in modest jumpers to below the knee, boys in blue trousers and white shirts. School has just let out at the Mama Sarah Obama Elementary School in the Kenyan village of Kogelo and they walk lightly in the afternoon sunshine. They look up at us in the open windows of our van, their large liquid eyes shining, waiting to see if we are friendly. When we wave and yell, “Jambo!” they light up, wave, and return the greeting.

On our drive here, every ¼ mile or so, there have been wooden signs announcing yet another school. Many of them have religious names, the result of Christian missionaries coming in to do good. In this area alone, 70  kilometers from Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya, thirty-seven schools each serve approximately 1,000 children. That is 37,000 children attending school in this area alone.

A lot of good seems to be happening in this part of Kenya, where the most educated people can be found and if the prolific amount of schools is any indication for the future of Kenya, then a brighter one is on the way.

Mama Sarah Obama is the step grandmother of President Obama and she has made a life out of helping orphaned children and educating them, many who are the result of the AIDS epidemic on this continent. Once their parents pass, their elderly grandparents are left with the task and it is daunting.We have called ahead of time to see if Mama Sarah would accept us for a visit.

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Long white buildings sit back from the road, with a cow or two grazing in the foreground. We turn down a lane and approach a metal gate. The guard tells us to park and walk up to Mama Sarah’s home. Chickens strut around the grass and peck absent mindedly while a small girl in oversized flip-flops smiles and waves shyly…evidently one of the orphans that Mama Sarah keeps in her private home.

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From down the gravel drive, I can see a large painted mural of America’s First Family and Mama Sarah standing behind them. How very strange yet how welcoming this makes me feel in this foreign country so far from my home. When my children were home-schooling teens, for their political science class, they canvassed for the then Senator Obama. In New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, they went door to door, spreading the word of this Presidential hopeful. We are a Democratic family who voted for and supports our President and it is thrilling to me to be here in his family’s Kenyan home.

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We interrupt a woman who is preparing greens, who then escorts us up to where Mama Sarah will receive us. A row of plastic lawn chairs are lined up on the front porch and the elegant woman has positioned herself in the middle. She smiles as we approach her. Her modest block home was recently built for her where she personally cares for a few orphaned children. One small girl carrying a hen in her arms, shows us a basket of peeps inside the door of a clay covered shed.

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We ask Mama Sarah questions about the ongoing projects she has in the works of building an Early Childhood Center, etc. When I ask the spokesperson, Marsat how many children Mama Sarah has birthed personally, she says eight and they are all right here involved. I ask Marset if she is related in any way she laughs and says, “She is my Mum.”

What would that make you to President Obama?”

He is my nephew.”

Wow. How wonderfully strange. The whole Barrack Obama family visited in 2009 and then again this past year meeting in Nairobi. The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation has a headquarters in California and Marsat travels to America on a regular basis. When we request Marsat to ask her mother how she keeps herself so young and strong at the age of 94, she translates,

By serving God and supporting those less fortunate.” We quietly nod our heads in approval.

I feel so very privileged and proud to be here in this moment.

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I am at a loss of words and questions to ask her. She is the type of larger than life person that makes you just want to sit in her presence, bask in her light, drape an arm around her shoulder. She is the kind of exceptional human being we should all strive to be- willing to work at lifting up our fellow-man, to share what we have and spread around the love. Mama Sarah receives guests every day all day long sometimes, from all over the world. Before we depart, we visit her husband’s grave, Barrack’s father.

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As we move down the driveway, I think of the work I have done my whole life, writing about how important and necessary it is to disconnect our children from technology and reconnect them to the natural world and suddenly it feels so absurd. These Kenyan children just want to learn. They spend their free time in the villages, outdoors- jumping rope, playing ball, rolling narrow bike tires with sticks, all in the company of one another; not alone indoors using their thumbs to type texts in an attempt to connect and communicate. These Kenyan children live in the jungle, witness firsthand the sweeping thunderstorms that green up the land and turn their paths to mud; they know the bird songs, and the animals roaming everywhere and nature is a part of the very fabric of their lives. How far our American children have come from this- a place they once lived and thrived also- the outdoors. And this is called “progress?”

Nature- deficit disorder is the phrase coined to describe this condition which can contribute to childhood depression and ADD. If I could share this information with these Kenyan children, they would find it completely absurd and here in Africa, so do I. What have we done to our children? As I wave to them and yell out “Jambo!” with their bright innocent eyes and openness, I wonder who is the better off.


“Just Enjoy the Sit” Reflections on Bus Riding in Nairobi, Kenya

When the blacktop two lane “highway” heading towards the Ol Pejeta Conservancy tuned to dirt, huge piles of rubble appeared on the right side, like a wall. The roadway itself was smooth and passable, however, until we were stopped in our tracks by a man, sitting on a horizontal concrete block, hunched over a small hole about 6 inches round. He laid small boulders across our path so we could not run him over. Our bus driver put the bus in gear and we watched. We watched as the solo road worker selected a few stones, took a hammer to crush them fine, and then ladled the mixture into the hole with a spoon. A spoon, really? After many minutes of watching, our bus driver had enough and told him to move the boulders and let us pass.

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A little further down the road, the road morphed into what looked like a narrow field ready for cultivating and plowing instead of a highway. Bulldozers pushed the red rich soil that was elevated above the surrounding Kenya countryside by a few feet. Our driver missed the detour sign and was not interested in turning around. He couldn’t if he wanted to because three more buses had pulled up to his sides as if they were gawking observers looking at a spectacle.

This behavior is called “overlapping” and is rampant here in Nairobi. There was arguing going on and before long, our bus driver won and we plowed through the loose soil like a tractor instead of a bus. Bus drivers seem to hold tremendous power in this African country.

We had been in Nairobi nearly a week at the Africa Travel Association’s Annual Congress, http://www.africatravelassociation.org

co-sponsored with the Kenya Tourism Board

https://ke.linkedin.com/in/magicalkenya

before our excursion out to this conservancy and so by this point, we had experienced some bizarre and unmanageable driving conditions. The worst, we learned, was during the rainy season.

When it rains, you can expect the ride to take hours when normally it would take minutes. The poorly drained roads flood with deep red water, thick with soil. Nairobi-ans drive old small vehicles that are purchased from Japan, which quickly break down and drown in deep water and turn into road blocks. (These vehicles have to be at least five years old before they are brought in and only the very wealthy can afford to buy cars new). There are also thousands of small public buses called matatus on the road competing for space, which are the main people movers in Nairobi.

It rained hard one evening when we were enroute to a dinner gala at the conference center in Nairobi. After we loaded our bus, we sat around the corner from our hotel for an hour. Four buses abreast filled the street, coming at us like immobile hungry sharks, anxious to devour us to get through. At our sides, vehicles from behind had flanked our sides. No vehicle could come towards us and none could go forward. It was a stand off, and there we sat for hours. When we moved inches, all vehicles moved inches at the same time, never allowing any distance to open up. This isn’t gridlock like at back home where everyone stays in their lane and waits, as patiently as they can. Aggressive driving is fined in America. It is a way of life here in Nairobi.

We heard other horror stories throughout the conference week. Colleagues were waiting for a transport to take them to that same dinner gala our first evening but their transport never showed up. They waited in front of our hotel for 1 ½ hours, figuring they were being blown off by the driver and went and found their own dinner. This was the first night of our conference in Nairobi and no one was privy to how bad the driving is and how long the wait can get. I happened to chat with that same bus driver days later and he informed me that they were certainly NOT forgotten. It had taken him 5 hours to drive the 1 ½ kilometers and arrived at the hotel entrance and lo and behold, found no waiting passengers.

Woman as a rule, don’t drive in Nairobi and you really can tell if there is a lone, usually terrified woman behind the wheel in the car ahead. The vehicle moves timidly. It allows vehicle after vehicle to cut in front of it. It gets run over. Woman naturally are caregivers, peacemakers, want everyone to get along. That personality doesn’t fly here in on the roadways of Nairobi. I am a fairly assertive driver at home. I overtake often and I drive over the speed limit most of the time but I am still considerate. I would need to step up my game here in order to stay alive. The alternative, always being a passenger, would also not fly with most American women I know.

While we drove around the conservancy on a game drive, Fred Muari of Africa Safaritours

http://www.africasafarilandtours.com/pages/HOME.htm?pgid=-1

told me more stories of traffic gridlocked in his fair city. One time a man hired a taxi to take him the 8 kilometers home. He got stuck in traffic and took 12 hours to get home. He went into his home, grabbed a sandwich and asked the taxi driver to wait and turn around and take him back to work, never getting a sleep in. Fred tells me that when people enroute to the airport get caught in traffic, they often get out and walk and just abandon their luggage before they’d miss a flight.

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On our way home from the conservancy, traffic suddenly stopped again. Vehicles came up from our rear on either sides of us. Then they came up on the other sides of those vehicles until there was a wall of vehicles five wide. The farthest ones out were in the bush. The line across might have grown to be 6, 7,8 across perhaps if it were not for the trees that began to grow the further out you went.

I sat in disbelief. No one beeped a horn in traffic jams like this, nor yells. Everyone moves quietly and aggressively. Do they stay off their horns because they are polite? That is hard to believe, for this behavior appears to be every man out for himself with no regard for their fellow drivers. I found the Nairobians to be patient, kind people in general so what occurs in them when they get behind the wheel?

First off, there are educated drivers and there are professional drivers on the road. The number of matatus in Nairobi alone number in the thousands, moving tens of thousands of people a day. This is a phenomenal number and because many of these are smaller vans, the roads are even more crowded with these aggressively driven vehicles.

The matatu drivers get paid by the trip. Even taxi drivers do not transport with a running tab of a meter. The incident where the passenger spent 12 hours one way in the vehicle only to turn around again, was paid through a negotiation. The driver’s time is taken into account along with the passenger’s wallet over this misfortune and lack of control. An agreement is made between the two.

There are also more vehicles on the road every year and those drivers are new to driving and do not possess the skill to be good drivers. A whole generators of poor drivers is evolving.

A police must be called in when one of these spectacular grid lock road blocks occurs to supervise. The officer gets into the thick of it and directs individual vehicles where to go. But these frequent and long lasting jams happen on a near daily basis and the police are at a loss of how to mitigate them. I myself was not frustrated but watched in a state of fascination and disbelief, but it wouldn’t take too many of these jams before I would be feeling like I was about to explode. I asked Fred what it feels like to live this way? “Doesn’t it make you crazy?”

“No,” Fred says. “You play music. You look at the headlights in front of you You chat and connect to the people in your vehicle. You just enjoy the sit.”

“Just enjoy the sit.” Wow. We Americans move so quickly, like to move quickly and expect to. When something stops us, we grow impatient almost immediately unless it is an accident. Then we accept our misfortune and stay parked in our lane and feel fortunate not to have been in a wreck and maybe dead. If someone does drive in the break down lane because they want to get off at an exit and avoid the back up, they are liable for a fine. But in a country like Kenya where corruption is rampant and they have much bigger problems than writing fines and collecting them, it may feel useless. Besides, you can always pay the police or anyone off, so why bother. Perhaps driving in this manner is an opportunity to be take control of one aspect of their lives. Africa struggles with an overall feeling of hopelessness, where so much is beyond their ability.

I learned years ago as a young mother, that it was never the child who was bad, they just exhibited poor behavior. Same for these Nairobians. They are good people. Many of them just drive like jerks.To accept such horrendous traffic conditions and behavior is beyond my American comprehension. I would want change and want it quickly and have order enforced. But that may be the difference between a citizen of a country who feels as if they have a voice and one who feels as if they are mute.

On my last evening in Nairobi, Fred and I planned to hop a matatu for a few kilometers so I could experience one. At the bus stop, he checked out each matatu that pulled up and peered into the window, for good matatu rides are “all about the vibe.” These mass transit, privately owned buses are painted on the outside with graffiti art and paintings. Some are gorgeous, some are gaudy. They share quotes depicting the driver’s private philosophy. After selecting an appropriate one, with loud African music and a deep percussion beat, we quickly climbed the few steps, for it was already moving away. We grabbed hold of a chrome bar overhead. Black faces, the color of night, filled the seats, standing room only. Posters of Malcome X and Bob Marley decorated the walls of the bus. The other passengers knew I was a tourist, of course, and so they smiled and said, Jambo!” and just watched me, fascinated by my behavior.

Fred and I hung near the door, watching the driver’s assistant swing out into the street as he held on with one arm, signaling where the bus was headed to the folks standing on the street. He tapped loudly on the side of the bus, indicating for the driver to continue. There was an overall feeling of fun on the matatu. I felt like busting out some dance moves but controlled myself. The matatu driver rocked and rolled through the streets, overtaking, overlapping, moving his people through Nairobi as fast as he could. From the inside of this lively bus, I didn’t mind his driving at all.

“Does Your Husband Know Who You’ve Been Kissing?”

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I watched the people at the Giraffe Center in Nairobi put compressed oval pellets between their pursed lips and present it to the giraffes. The gorgeous animals came right up to them, lips to lips and took the pellet. Their tongues were incredibly long, whipping out nearly a foot, looking for food. We stood in a roofed hut that was on platform legs so the giraffes could walk around below us yet stick their heads into the side to be at eye level. These were endangered Rothchild Giraffes, with only 120 remaining on the planet when the center opened back in 1979. The actual non profit organization is called the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya (AFEW). Located in Karen, 3 miles from Nairobi city center, it has since evolved into an outstanding environmental education center for Kenyan youth.

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The giraffes were sometimes wet and sloppy kissers and left some saliva on the human presenters’ mouth. Attendees go around with a can of the enlarged rabbit pellets and offer them indefinitely to guests. One would think you’d hold them out in your hand and present them as you would feed a llama or a goat but giraffes prefer you to drop the pellet into their tongue which they curve into a convenient trough for you to deposit it. Besides the compressed pellets, they eat grass, carrots and lick salt with their incredible tongues.

The attendees call the giraffes by name of course, they wander at will from the 120 acres of land that they live and raise their young on. They live happily alongside wart hogs that hang out at their feet.

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It is quiet amazing to be eyeball to eyeball, with a magnificent creature that usually safari goers only see from a distance in their land rovers. I watched others present their mouths and although many had to wipe the slime from their chins afterwards and it at first seemed a bit disgusting, I thought to myself, when are you ever going to get to do this again? Go stick that pellet between your lips and get intimate with that gorgeous creature. Skin wipes clean. A memory like this lasts forever.

It was really something to have a giraffe come so close that he touches you, takes his soft lips and gently takes the pellet from your lips. There were all kinds of silly comments being tossed around by my travel writing colleagues, “Go get a room!” “He was quite a French kisser,” “Does your husband know who you have been kissing?” I teased back and said, “I kept my lips pursed tightly. There was no penetration!”

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Ever since the center opened, over 50 Rothschild giraffes have been successfully raised and introduced back into one of Kenya’s protected wild areas. And I got to kiss one. Lucky me. And to think I almost missed out because of being squeamish of a long wet tongue. How foolish.

The Gift of Not Seeing Dirt

I could not sleep the other night and kept thinking about the freezer, go down and get berries out so you can have some with your morning yogurt. I couldn’t shake this idea and so I got up at 2 am and went down to the basement. Low and behold, there stood the upright freezer- open for 3-4 days. The interior was a nightmare of frost.

In the morning, I asked my husband if he would help me defrost it that evening. It is stuffed full of basil from our garden for making pesto in the winter- strawberries, raspberries, peaches, peppers, green beans, the list goes on. It is only one of two large freezers that we store our organic food in that we (my husband mostly) painstakingly grows all summer long. Luckily for us, we have a ton of coolers to throw these giant zip locs in of food so they don’t defrost while we execute the defrosting. I heat up pots of water on the woodstove. Carry them down the open wooden basement steps, splashing hot water on my husband’s neck who was underneath getting more coolers out! Whoops! I thought I would help- after all I DID THIS three days ago when I got out frozen food, he told me.

As Todd worked on some evening woodworking projects nearby to check on the defrosting progress, I came down with a butter knife to begin chipping off chunks and make it go faster. He yelled, “be very careful, those wires are very fragile.” It suddenly struck me, when the last time was that I had a butter knife in my hand and was defrosting a freezer. Thirty five years ago!!! I was single and had the same tool of choice in hand. That resulted in stabbing the freon container in my fridge and needing to get Mr Teter on a house call to repair it and fill it back up. My God, has it been that long since I did this chore? No wonder I stayed away after that. What a pathetic specimen of a housekeeper you are, I told myself.

I said to Todd, “Oh my God, I haven’t defrosted a fridge or a freezer since we are married.”

He said, “I know, I do it all the time.”

“How many times have you done it? I asked “and how come I don’t remember you doing it?”

“You were probably out hiking somewhere,” he replied.

I told my girlfriend Maryalice this and she laughed hard and said, “That’s why you are my hero.”

Wow, not too many would agree with that statement. Certainly not my parents who figured they failed in this department way back when I was a teen and they were still alive. My dad would follow behind me when I lived at home and say, “Cynthia, don’t you see that lint on the carpet? Pick it up when you see it.”

Dad did not believe me that I actually DID NOT SEE DIRT. I do not hold it in my mind’s eye and so it doesn’t appear. Only when I must turn my attention over to it when someone of note is coming to visit. At those times, when I vacuum the floor and dust and the guest arrives, I announce that I have not had the chance to clean (even though I just did clean- MY KIND of cleaning ) and that I am not a good housekeeper.

“My sister once got me a T-shirt that said, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life.” You have to watch who you wear that one in front of. Women liked the one that said, “A man’s house is his castle, let him clean it.”

I guess that has been the philosophy that I have adopted. As I moped up the pools of freezing water with towels, swept the concrete floor with a dustpan and brush, I was reminded why I hate cleaning. I just don’t find it much fun. And I try to avoid activities that are not much fun.

I like to wheelbarrow firewood. I like to mow the lawn. I like to pull weeds. I always make our bed and keep the house picked up. There is magnet on my fridge that says, “I understand the concept of cooking and cleaning, just not how it applies to me.” I DO like to cook, however and feel it is my responsibility as a work-at-home wife to have a good wholesome, healthy meal on the table WHEN MY MAN COMES HOME from work! I always prided myself as being a “good enough wife,” just a lousey housekeeper. I am a good homemaker I believe because we have so many who love to come to our home to visit and stay. So I would say I excel there! I am not a bad writer or photographer either and have an important message to share to the world and I do work hard at loving people and to be there for my friends. I am a very good mother too. My God, we can’t be good at everything! I selected housekeeping to be my drawback, downfall, weakness, whatever. We all have a certain amount of energy to expend in the world, on our projects, our passions. Having a floor that is so clean that you can eat off it is not my desire. I don’t sweat it and I am fortunate enough to have a husband who picks up the slack.

I like the quote as a life philosophy when it comes to cleaning or anything we don’t LOVE,

“Don’t try to be such a perfect girl, darling. Do the best you can without too much anxiety or strain.” Jesse Barnard. Now let’s go for a hike.