Sanctuaries and Tourist Attractions: Do Elephants See Them as the Same?

When I was a little girl, my mother washed my hair every Sunday night in preparation for the school week. Back then you didn’t go to bed with wet hair; it was thought you could get a cold. So, while my hair was drying, I could sit in front of the television and watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Every time I heard the opening music of the show, I leaned forward and scanned the screen for elephants. If they were there, I willed my hair to stay wet and heavy.

On our recent trip to Thailand, we visited the Elephants Hills Sanctuary in Khao Sok National Park. We stepped out of the vans and watched the sixteen gentle giants emerge from the fields and walk in a single line towards us. The youngest was fourteen and the oldest was seventy-six. As we stood in the shade of the trees and listened to the guide, I slipped through the group towards the ancient female.

Mai Ri, the oldest elephant at the sanctuary, was born in 1943 when thousands of elephants were used as laborers to haul logs out of the Thai forest. They were used by the military to carry supplies, and they were captured in the wild and shipped to countries all over the world to work in circuses. Mai Ri has difficulty standing, so she shifts her weight from one leg to another. Her breasts sweep the earth as she walks, and she is blind in one eye. When she passes by a tree, her scarred ear flap catches on the bark and tears her already shredded skin. She has only one tooth in her mouth. No one knows her complete story; likely she was one of the rejected elephants found on the streets of Bangkok carrying tourists for less than a dollar a ride.

Before we bathed and fed the elephants, we got comfortable with their immense size by stroking them and touching their ears and trunks. The mahouts—the elephant caregivers who spend twenty-four hours a day with them—watched carefully and used commands and thin sticks to guide them. Mae Ri stood as if she were asleep while I patted her shoulder and ran my hand down her trunk bleached yellow from the years of sun.

We walked the elephants to a pond and stood on the trampled grass while the animals slid down the muddy bank. They blew water out of their trunks and jostled each other looking for the coolest spot. Mai Ri slowly sank to the bottom of the pond and rested there. Only her trunk was above water.  Soon, the mahouts spoke to the elephants and they all lumbered out, climbed the hillside, and rolled their skin back and forth, side to side, like ships bobbing on the water. Mud streamed from their sides and hit the path in circles. Mai Ri stayed on the bottom until her mahout crawled down the water’s edge and spoke to her. She followed the others to the bathing stations.

Paul and I joined Mai Ri at her pad. She waited for us, lifting her feet and swaying back and forth. Paul sprayed her with the hose, and I tossed buckets of water on her back. Together, we used coconut fibers to scrub her skin. Her one big brown eye gazed towards the empty, green field beyond us. A little afraid, I leaned my head to rest on a real-life elephant’s trunk. I felt her skin, smooth in some places and bristly in others.

I held Paul’s hand as we left the elephant sanctuary in the air-conditioned van. The driver (who I can only assume was fired upon our return) decided to take a short cut back to the camp. We bumped over craters in the road and rounded a corner where a traffic jam of vans was negotiating the entrance to a large, penned area with wooden viewing stands. Elephants wearing traditional Thai decorations stood in a line with giant rickshaw baskets high on top of them. They lowered themselves to their knees to allow people to climb them like a ladder. Once the baskets were bulging with people, the elephants stood up and began to walk. Heavy chains rattled with their footsteps, and they were prodded with a short hook, an ankus, by their mahouts. People kicked the elephants behind their ears urging them to go faster. The massive creatures ascended steep, man-made hills and screamed as the basket slid backwards. They shouted as the baskets slid forward on the downhill side. As far as they were concerned, it was a roller coaster ride. My throat swam in bile.

Is there a difference between the sanctuary and the tourist attraction? No one knows how many of Mai Ri’s babies were taken from her, how much pain and indignity she endured over the years, and even now, the performance she does twice a day at the sanctuary—swimming when she doesn’t want to, getting baths she does not need, and waiting to be fed by people afraid of her searching trunk—likely try her patience as an elderly matriarch.

The other people in the van shouted at the driver for taking us past the attraction. They contended we shouldn’t have been exposed to such cruelty. But not one of us unlocked those heavy van doors and demanded an end to the atrocity. ‘We went to a sanctuary,’ was the sanctimonious message passed through the seats as if that absolved us of putting our own desires above those of the elephants.

Travel industry experts say the elephants cannot be released into the wild because there is not enough habitat left to support them, and financial resources are limited, so there must be a means to recouping the costs.

Protected by the swaths of cool air and the guilty silence all around me, I sent a message out to the universe hoping Mai Ri recognized that my touch came from the truest part of me—my childhood self—and I wanted only to honor her. Given her long life, and perhaps her longing for her lost children, I hope she understood.

The Romantic Beach Dinner

Paul and I became those people tonight–the ones dining on the beach with a private valet, bushels of orchids perfuming the air, a lighted chandelier swaying over our heads, candles marking the edges of our dining area, and broiled lobsters bristling on our plates.  img_1853

Our travel company kindly treated us to a romantic, private dinner on the beach at the Tubkaak Resort in Krabi after an unfortunate experience in a Bangkok restaurant.

It was a beautiful setting and delicious food, but there was a story under all that glitz and glamour…

We’d been traveling for ten days by this time, and we’d done our laundry once. We bundled the hot, smelly mess into a bag and handed it to the staff. When later I opened the closet to change my clothes, it was empty. We had two choices–each of us wear the one pair of dirty underwear we had turned inside out twice already–or my idea–go commando.

“I’m not going without underwear.” Paul said, pulling back on the grey, rumpled pair of shorts that had already seen a waterfall hike and a particularly warm day at a temple.

“My dress is lined, so I don’t need underwear.” Together we held up the pale blue, strapless dress and inspected it. We had it made in Chang Mai, and the tailor was better at men’s clothing. Significantly better.

“Pretty sure you need that underwear,’ Paul said shaking his head.

So, just like the couple who planned the events of their Senior Prom, Paul and I prepared for the Romantic Beach Dinner.

Paul shaved. Then I shaved using his razor. He says they are ruined after that, but I don’t see the difference. Paul ironed his pants and shirt and buffed his shoes.

I needed help of a different kind.

“I lean over and drop them in and then you cinch me on the tightest clasps,” I instructed him while bending over at the waist. Paul stood frozen.

“How do you think a woman gets a strapless bra on?” I complained and snapped my fingers.

When we arrived at the beach, our valet, Chantra, waited for us. The sun was still bright over the water, and the humidity seeped into my hair. I had used a new organic mosquito repellent, Kaffir Lime, and the smell made Paul walk several feet behind me.

Chantra seated us at a table for two in the sand. Tinkling crystals bushed against each other overhead, stems of white and purple orchids spilled from the candelabras dug into the sand, and yards of tulle covered our chairs and the table. We were the cake topper engulfed in cream frosting.

What I didn’t expect, was the string of people who walked past our table a few feet away guessing why were having such a fancy dinner.

“Too old to be getting married,”

“Yeah, anniversary, maybe,”

“I don’t get it. Who are they?”

As we were the objects of scrutiny and discussion, we dined on Crab Salad Towers, Andaman Sea Soup, Passion Fruit Sorbet,  Broiled Lobster, and Tiramisu for dessert.  In between each course, Chantra dashed from the shadows and sprayed Bug Off on my legs (the organic stuff was a bust), and Paul and I took turns re-lighting the candles which was like playing Whack-a-Mole, because there were so many. We shooed away a cat who jumped on my lap determined to snare our lobster carcasses, and I helped Chantra find a fork when he dropped it in the sand. It took a village to keep that dinner on track.

“Coffee,” I called out to the darkness. “Please?” I cleared my throat. “Chantra?”

We picked up our things–phones, reading glasses, and sun glasses–the vitals, you know, and before we left, just for me, Paul faked one last dancing picture. img_1912

Upon returning to our room, we really celebrated. Our laundry was back. Paul counted his underwear pile twice, and I squealed when I saw my Ohio State Buckeyes nightgown starched and hung on a hanger. It looked better than the dress, and it did not require a bra of any kind.

Monk Chat

I told Paul I wanted to meet a monk in Thailand, and he responded that it was unlikely there was a Monk Chat tour. Maybe Karma will arrange a meeting, I sniffed.  Sure, he said. Go for it…

Well…on the last leg of our inbound flight to Bangkok, I saw a monk, swathed in a voluminous, tangerine-colored sheet  with a wool hat pulled over his ears, enter the plane and walk down our aisle. I offered to trade him my window seat for his middle seat, and he said yes. It felt odd to sit between my husband and a monk, but when I glanced at Paul with a bemused smile on my face, I did not know that Karma dislikes smugness.  monk chat

“Would you mind if I asked you about being a monk?” He nodded in agreement and I pondered my opening. In the back of my brain I remembered my feet had to point away from him, I couldn’t step on his shadow, and, with a thrill, I recalled there could be no skin to skin contact with a woman (even his mother and sisters) because females have a corrupting influence on monks. I raised the armrest between Paul and myself and mentally measured the distance between the monk and me. It appeared to be ample.  Karma also does not appreciate superciliousness.

“How long have you been a monk?”

“Since I was seven years old,,” he replied looking at me over the top of his glasses. “My parents sent me to the temple so I could get an education. I was a novice until I was twenty and then I accepted the robes for life.”

“Did your parents come visit you?”

“Yes, but only once a year on my birthday. Chang Rai is very far from Bangkok,” he said pulling his robe tighter and settling into the gap between the seat and the window.

“Could they bring a birthday cake?” group monks

“No, monks can only eat what they are offered each morning.”

I raised my eyebrows. Karma does not like doubt.

“Monks take bowls out each morning and people who follow Buddha put money and food in the bowls. It’s called alms.” His sheet pulled away from his shoulder, and for a moment I saw a section of his smooth, hairless chest and bare arm. They looked delicate, unlined, and, I have to say it…naked.

“What do you do as a monk?” Karma does not like rudeness.

“I pray, chant, and meditate.”

“I can’t meditate,” I rushed in. “There are so many thoughts in my head, I can’t stop them.” Next to me I felt Paul’s back shake with laughter. Karma does’t like interruptions.

“Yes, you can. You can learn to meditate.” He pointed to my water bottle. “Look at it. See how it is shaped? The color? The amount of water? Focus on it.” monk unbrella

I tilted the bottle back and forth like a snow globe. “What does meditating do?” Karma does not like impatience.

“When you are a monk you can meditate alone or with others. It is about stilling your thoughts, carving a hole inside you, and letting it fill itself. I teach the novices to meditate using the full moon as their object.”

We chatted for a while longer, and then he put his headphones on and turned away to watch a movie. I stared at my water bottle and tried to do as he suggested. Still my thoughts, carve a hole, let it fill itself.  I looked at the water through the blue plastic. Maybe I could smell the water. Karma does not like disbelief.

I flipped open the top of the bottle and leaned in to smell. The bottle was filled to the edge, and I didn’t notice growing bubbles roiling and building in the bottom. Before I could figure out what was happening, the straw bulged and water surged to the top. The combination of the change in air pressure in the plane and my shaking the bottle during my monk chat had created a geyser of pressurized water. It shot out the bottle and straight into the ceiling above our heads. It rained all over the monk, Paul and me, and when the bottle was empty, drips from the ceiling rolled down the sides of our faces. The front of my shirt was soaked, and the monk’s robes were so water-logged, he could have wrung them out. Paul jumped up to get towels, and I held the empty water bottle in my hand. Karma got even.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I was meditating. Trying to.”

He took his glasses off and used a section of his cloth to rub his lenses dry.

“That’s good,” he said placing his glasses back on. “perhaps if you focus on a full moon, it is unlikely it will rain.”

I have never believed in Karma. I may have to rethink my position.  monk parade

I’ll Do It My Way (with the Help of 20 Dancing Thai Women)

I led a congo line of dancing middle-age women to Frank Sinatra’s I”’ll Do it My Way” tonight at the Night Market in Chang Mai, Thailand. Where’s the picture? There isn’t one. Paul was in the bathroom.

I’m glad—but not for the reasons you might think.

Our vacation to Thailand has come at a crossroads for me. Although we started planning it back in February, I didn’t know until a few months later that the legislature would eliminate my job. I was unaware that I would be facing medical issues that are more annoying than anything else–but still real.

I felt like I was waiting at a bus stop where every bus passed me by. When the funding was cut for my position, I was five months from my twenty-year anniversary which is the magic number for a complete retirement package. The state education agency agreed to keep me on for those extra five months and asked me to complete a few small projects. Five months is a long time to have very little to do. It is a long time to be an expert in what you do and yet no one needs you to do it. The few projects took me a few weeks, not months, and while I waited for the time to pass, I did a lot of thinking.

So, that brings me back to the Night Market dance. In Chang Mai, there is a day market that sells indigo clothes, smocked pants, and all things elephant. The night market sells all of the same things, but it takes place at night where pastel lamps swing in the breeze, the flames of the street food surge with the cooking meat, Las Vegas-style Thai Lady Boys pose for pictures for 100BHT (three dollars), and people get up and sing karaoke. Here’s the deal—Night Market in Chang Mai is huge. I’m talking enough vendors to fill a football field. I’m talking a booming audio system for the karaoke.

I sat down in a plastic chair in the middle of the third row in front of the karaoke stage. I clutched my purse in my lap. ‘Zip up your purse,’ Paul mouthed to me over his shoulder as he walked away.  I sat quietly, my leg bouncing to the rhythm of the music. A tiny, grey-haired Thai man on the stage was sweating, pacing back and forth, and pointing to the women in the crowd as he belted out Sinatra’s greatest hit. The woman sitting next to me reached over and tapped my arm. She tipped her head towards the stage and motioned for me to go up. I shook my head No. No way. Her friend reached over and patted my leg. Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and she laughed and pushed my arm. It was a friendly push.

Emboldened, they began to talk to me in Thai. Their voices got higher and more insistent. Their friends came over curious to see why the crazy American lady wouldn’t sing karaoke. Finally, I dropped my purse and stood up. They roared and shook their fists in the air.  There was no way I was going to sing, but I could dance. Seconds later there was a pile of purses knee deep, and twenty Thai women and one crazy red head were pressed against the stage and waving their arms like they were at a concert.

The singer motioned for the music to start again. I lined the little ladies up, their worn ballet flats facing forward, and patted each of them as I ran down the row putting their hands on the shoulders of the woman in front of them. I took the lead at the front of the line, and we took off. We snaked through the stalls, pausing to wave our hands like flags when it came to Sinatra’s big line. People were filming us with their I Phones, and I am afraid to check You Tube.

I was astounded by the joy and freedom I felt. It didn’t matter if I looked ridiculous. The Thai ladies and I were having the time of our lives. I kicked my foot to the left with my friends, and we belted out the chorus better than the big New Yorker himself.

All those months of waiting are done. Twenty years was a long time to wait for the congo-line moment of my life, but it is here, and I don’t need a picture to prove to myself that I can do it. For the rest of the night, every time I passed one of those lovely ladies in the market, we’d put our heads together and sing, “I’ll do it my way.”

Chopsticks Not Required

There’s something about Autumn that causes Paul and I to glance at one another with renewed interest. We feel an itch that needs to be scratched. We stare at each other with raised eyebrows. We pace the house while the rain falls outside. Finally, one of us says, ‘Do you want to go on a trip?’ and the other one sighs, ‘Yes.’

We’re going to Thailand.

Paul spreads travel guides across the dining table, studying maps until he has them memorized. I practice my wai greeting—bowing my head and pressing my palms together.  I say the feminine ‘Sawasdee kha’ and Paul answers with the masculine ‘Sawasdee krap,’ the Thai greeting for hello. We watch Netflix shows on street food, buy mosquito repellant for the jungle hikes, ponder appropriate footwear for longtail boats, and read numerous New York Times articles on the ethics of elephant and human interaction.

Paul is relaxed during the days of planning, but my gut churns with something other than acid reflux. Finally, one evening, I lean over on the couch and whisper in his ear, ‘I can’t use chopsticks.”

In the summer of 1987, two of my male friends talked me into going on a blind date with one of their buddies. Don’t ask me his name, I don’t remember. All I know is on that night I went from being a chopstick virgin to a chopstick failure.

He took me to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Seattle, and as our food arrived, he grabbed the fork out of my hand and slapped a set of thin, wooden sticks into my palm.

‘I won’t let you use a fork.’ I still remember his smarmy grin. He must have thought I was the kind of girl who would find it funny. I didn’t. I was steaming.

I bent my stiff fingers around the slim sticks and tried to twirl the noodles like spaghetti. They slid down and pooled on the plate. I chased the chicken trying to get one stick under the meat, but it just kept circling the rim. I attempted to stab a vegetable. No luck. I contemplated stabbing the back of his hand laying on the table between us, but then I remembered I was a lady. I heard him giggle, and I raised my eyes in time to see rubbery rings of calamari speeding towards my mouth.

“Open,” he demanded. “You’ll love it.”

“I want a fork,” I bellowed over my shoulder. The waiter ran between the tables and placed it next to me. He took the offending chopsticks and scurried back to the kitchen.

“The guys didn’t tell me you were so feisty,” Blind date guy said slurping noodles between his lips.

So, I’ve never recovered from chopsticks failure. I’ve tried over the years, but as soon as something flies over the booth, falls on the floor, or zings across the table, I toss the sticks into my purse and embrace the fork.  Paul, of course, clicks chopsticks in the air like an insect during mating season and swoops, shovels, and gulps without dropping them or flicking sauce on himself.  I watch unmoved.

I remind Paul of the possible benefit of my inability to use chopsticks in Thailand—weight loss. ‘Time on task,’ he chides. ‘You have to practice.’ Easy for him to say. I agree to try again.  I retrieve Paul’s personal chopsticks and plop a scoop of ice cream in a bowl. Then my phone rings. It is Natasha, our guide, from Audley Travel.

I confess my fears to her. She laughs and says, “You’ll be fine. People use spoons, forks and chopsticks all over the country.”

Triumph in my eyes, I hang up the phone and announce to Paul, “Good news. Natasha says I don’t have to smuggle a fork into Thailand.”

Paul, knowing there is no topic too insignificant to discuss, nods carefully and replies, “I am happy. Any time we can avoid an international incident over table utensils is a good day.”

 

Climbing Through a Pizza Restaurant Door Led Me to the Speakeasy of My Future

I spent my last night in Paris with a Turkish tour guide, a Middle Eastern banker, my husband, and my brother-in-law on a cocktail tour that ended with me stepping through a refrigerator door in a pretend pizza restaurant. What was behind that door? My future.

“Ah, I told you guys not to drink,” Pete looked annoyed when he arrived at our agreed upon meeting place. He walked. We ubered. We had time for one last carafe of cheap wine. He was waiting for the good stuff.  He used a parents’ best weapon. Guilt.

“This is a cocktail tour. It is not a pub crawl. We are going to go to bars, try different kinds of spirits and learn about cocktails.” It was a lecture.

Paul and I looked at each other and waited for Pete to move towards the door. Together we raised our glasses and gulped the rest of our wine. Paul grabbed his coat and I pulled my wrap off the back of the chair. In Paris I didn’t wear a coat. I wore a wrap. It was quite theatrical when I flung it across my chest and over my shoulder. img_5665

“We’re meeting the guide at the corner up there.” Pete marched ahead and I followed him. Paul brought up the rear steering me, holding up my wool wrap that kept sliding to the ground, and keeping an eye out for pickpockets. One of my favorite Paris activities was to scan the crowd on the Metro and decide who was the guy most likely to lunge for my purse. No one did. Paul would say it was because of his protection, but I believe the potential crooks read “screamer” all over my face when they considered at me.

“Great I am glad you are here.” Dicle, a young girl from Turkey was leading our tour. An aspiring actress, she talked Airbnb into offering a cocktail tour to get the real vibe of a working-class neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city.

“Here’s Mohammed; he’s joining us too.” Mohammed, dressed in black, stood a little away from the group. He kept his eyes averted and walked in the street instead of cramming onto the sidewalk with us.

Dicle explained to us that the tour was really ours—we could go anywhere we wanted. Pete suggested whiskey, I suggested anything as long as it was pink, and Paul suggested he would decide when he got there. Mohammed, out of the shadows said, “I’d like whiskey too. I’m on the Keto diet.”

“Oh, me too,” Pete said turning around. “I’m at my lowest weight since 20 years ago, 224 pounds.”

Paul and I were quiet. We had just spent two glorious weeks in France gorging on chocolate croissants and café au lait for breakfast, bread for lunch and dinner, butter sauces on our fish, and fries with steak. We washed it all down with dry rose wine whenever the opportunity presented itself. A carafe was less than a whole bottle—at least that’s what we told each other.

“Damn,” Paul muttered. “I’m not the skinniest Klenk brother anymore.”

Bar #1—Dirty, but interesting seating.

We had to duck our heads under a low doorway to get into the first bar. Old, grungy couches hugged the dirty walls and endless techno music made my teeth grind together. The only seats available were little preschool-sized woven straw stools lined up and facing each other. We lowered ourselves down and sat hunched over, our elbows resting on our knees.  While sipping our drinks—whiskeys for Pete and Mohammed, a rosy-hued spritzer for me, and an unknown drink for Paul—we relaxed.

“Mohmmad, where are you from?” Dicle asked. She was drinking water.

“Saudi Arabia. I am from there.” He took a long drink from his glass and raised his head. “I like whiskey.”

I practically crawled over Paul’s lap to hear Mohammad’s soft voice.

He was handsome with dark skin, possessed all of his hair (Klenks, not so much), sported expensive clothes, and, I checked, didn’t wear a wedding ring.

“Hey Dicle, I want to go to Turkey. I’ve always wanted to visit there and drink Turkish Coffee,’’ Pete said.

“I know,” she answered. “But, it’s funny, did you hear that it isn’t really from Turkey? The coffee is from Greece!”

“But Turkey got back the meatballs the Swedes stole from them. The recipe was originally Turkish.” Pete was nimble. He could pivot on any conversation. He is an attorney.

“You know what is only in America?” Mohammed asked. We all shook our heads and leaned off our tiny stools to hear him. “Hooters!”

He was right.

Bar #2—Reminiscent of college but with a surprising twist

I trailed behind Paul, Pete, Dicle and Mohammed and fiddled with my phone.

“What are you doing,” Paul asked grabbing my wrap before I stepped on it. “Are you texting?”

“I’m not. I’m taking notes.” Paul looked to the sky as if patience would rain down on him.

We walked into the second bar, coughing through the smoke. We grabbed a table at the back. The table and stools were constructed of pallets. There wasn’t a single cut. At one point I thought Paul went to the restroom, but then he popped up from under the table. He was studying the craftsmanship.

“The bartender doesn’t really make any official cocktails,” Dicle observed. “He’ll make anything you want. Just ask him.”

“Whiskey?” Pete asked.

“Whiskey?” Mohammed echoed.

“Sure,” she answered. “Just ask him.”

Paul ventured to the bar and brought back a margarita presented in a champagne flute. Mohammed and Pete got their whiskey in jelly jars. It was my turn.

“Bonjour,” I pulled myself up on to the bar and shouted over the noise, “make me your best drink.”

The pony-tailed bartender began grabbing bottles above his head and from the tall shelves behind him. When he presented the tall glass to me, it was amber-colored with Thai basil shoved down into the ice. He stuck a sprig of rosemary into the top. I reached for it.

“Wait,” he said. From behind his back he pulled out a butane blow torch. He blasted the rosemary until it turned black and slumped into the drink. “It makes it taste smoky,” he explained as he handed it to me over the sticky bar.

“What’s that?” Pete asked as I struggled to climb up onto my pallet stool.

“A Rosemary Basil Smoky,” I lied and took a long drink through my straw. It was unknown, scary, but still delicious. “Are you okay with the tour?” I asked. I wondered because Pete loved the science and the art of making cocktails. Recently divorced, he was looking for both whimsy and stability in a potential partner—not an easy combination.

“Oh, I gave up long ago, but this is fun.” We clinked glasses.

“I am married,” Mohammed announced holding his glass up to us. “I drank whisky before I came so now I am, what do you call it?”

“Tipsy?” I offered.

“Yes, that is the word.”

I glanced down at my phone in my lap. I was typing words with one finger and swigging my drink during breaks in the conversation.

“My wife wants to see you,” Mohammad said holding his phone aloft in FaceTime mode. I couldn’t see her face as his arm swept across our group, but I shouted,

“Everything is fine.” I imagined her home and alone. “Absolutely fine.”

Bar #3—unremarkable until the shock at the end.

It was after midnight when we reached the third bar. It was quiet with benches pulled up to large tables. We faced each other, and I was finally able to hear Mohammed talk. He loved Paris. He had been coming to the City of Light since 1999 when he graduated from college. He was an investment banker. He was presenting at a conference on Monday. He had been married for a year. After the Keto diet, he explained blushing.

I saw Paul and Pete look at each other behind me. If they had been wearing watches they would have tapped them.

“So, I want to know. Are you like a princess or something?” Dicle asked me. img_5703

“What? No, I don’t know what you mean.” I looked down at my black linen palazzo pants with the wide cuffs, my peach silk blouse, and, my hand went immediately to my birthday present, a strand of extra-large freshwater pearls.

“Yes,” Pete and Paul chimed together.

“What do you do?”

“I,” I stumbled over my words. “I work in education, but I’d rather write. Like this.” I held up my phone and showed them the notes I was taking.

“I’ll write a blog when I get home,” I explained.

“Cool. Here’s my email address. Will you send it to me?”

“Of course.”

“There’s one more place you might want to go,” Dicle said pulling on her jacket and winding her scarf around her neck. “It’s a speakeasy called Moonshiner.”

“A speakeasy? You mean like in the 1920s?” I felt my pulse beating in my neck.

“Yeah. You just go there. It looks like a pizza place. A guy will let you in. Just go through the refrigerator door.”

Standing outside the bar, Mohammed and Dicle melted away. Paul, Pete, and I had a “discussion”, which actually means I used my princess status to get what I wanted. I didn’t care if it was 1 am, or we had to take a taxi to the airport at an ungodly hour in the morning, or it might be closed. I was going to the speakeasy, even if it meant I would have to create my own Uber account on the spot.

We went.

outside door to speakeasy“Are you sure?” The uber driver slowed the car to a stop. Silent warehouses lined the streets. There were no cars, no people, nothing except for a brightly-lit store front with a blinking, neon pizza sign. Inside the window I saw a man sweeping the floor and another man cleaning dishes in the sink.

“Yes.” I threw open the car door and jumped out leaving my wrap tangled in the back seat. I ran up the two steps. I wasn’t cold in the frosty night. “Hi,” I said stepping onto the black and white tiled floor. “I’m here,” I breathed. “I’m here.”

The man with the broom pointed to the back of the store.

“Open it,” Paul said easing the pizza door shut as he and Pete joined me. “Go first.”

I turned the handle on the wood paneled refrigerator door and stepped into a storage closet. Bags of flour and cans of tomato sauce lined metal racks. It was dim and dusty in the room. A plain wooden door stood in front of me.

“Keep going,” Paul said and pushed me gently. My wrap was slung around his neck.

I stretched out my hand, turned the handle, and pushed the door open.

If I had looked hard enough, I believe I might have found Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the crowded room. Jazz music played on an old stand up record player in the corner. The walls were covered in gold chevron-striped wallpaper, and chandelier lights were muted by small lamp shades. People stood at tall tables, sat at the bar, and hid in the depths of wing chairs pulled up to secret corners.  The tin ceiling, embossed and polished, reflected the lights behind the bar that illuminated hundreds of bottles of liquor. Candle flames fluttered on every surface creating shadows on the walls. Velvet drapes covered all but a sliver of the night sky outside. img_5716

The bartenders were dressed in black with grey vests and bow ties and moved like graceful ice skaters behind the bar. They tossed bottles up, the liquor careening into the glasses. They stirred, measured, crushed, sniffed, eyed, and tasted. We ordered drinks.

Pete whistled low as he tasted his drink. “I’ve waited for this Side Car all night. This is done perfectly.”

“Are you happy?” I asked my husband.

“Are you?” he answered.

“Yes. Except I have to go to the bathroom.” I slid off the too-high bar stool and snaked through the people towards the toilette sign. I hesitated. There were two doors, and it was dark.

“Not that way.” The voice seemed familiar. It was soft and hesitant with a whisper of an accent. With a touch on my arm, he turned me to the left. “Goodnight.” He eased away into the shadows.

I cannot say for sure, but I think it was Mohammed.

We left the Moonshiner at 3 o’clock in the morning. We hugged Pete goodbye. Once again, he walked and we ubered. I watched Paris go by outside the window and thought about all the people I know and love. How many would tremble with excitement at the idea of going to a speakeasy? How many would walk through the pizza restaurant’s refrigerator door and step into a supply closet confident it wasn’t the end? The real question was, why is it so important to me that there be something more on the other side of the door?

“Because you have to get to the other side,” Paul said yawning.

pink drink at speakeasy

Paul is right. I’ve crossed to the other side. Time is ticking away. I have to decide.

Missing My Book Group Who Would Love Paris

Dear Book Group Members:

I am missing our meeting tonight, but I know the red wine flight or the 5 o’clock Somewhere margarita at Swing’s will be someone’s choice for the evening. Lift one for me.

I wish you could see what I see as I write. I am perched on a tall stool looking out grand windows that I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach the latch.  

Three ornate buildings with sculpted balustrades hovering over the tops of the windows and balconies framed with black, wrought iron railings are close enough neighbors I could say hello without raising my voice. When I stick my head out the window, the view down the street is filled with fluttering awnings, sidewalk tables with neatly folded blankets on the chairs, and light from shops spilling out onto the cobblestone streets.

We are staying at 19 Rue de la Harpe, Saint Michel Notre Dame, a third-floor apartment with stairs so narrow, Paul and I had to walk on our tip toes while carrying our horrendously heavy suitcases. Paul has given in—we will buy one more to get everything home.

Notre Dame is just over our shoulder here on the Isle de la Cite on the Left Bank. Heavy, tolling bells and singing chimes announce the start of every hour. I run to open the window or stop on the sidewalk to listen. All of Notre Dame’s bells are named and tuned to a specific key. I would like to hear Emanuel, hoisted into place in 1681 and weighing 13 tonnes (Conversion needed) but he is only rung on high holidays or moments of great importance. Guess what? What I always called the “clapper” in the bell (forgive me, I know), is actually called the ‘fighter.’ Paul and I are still discussing the physics of who swings what and what gets hit where. (Now the bell image is gone, oui?)

When we were in Normandy on a D-Day tour, I thought of you often. We read those novels on World War II—The Nightingale, the Lilac Girls, All the Light We Cannot See, The Gournsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—and I saw all the characters we brought to life in our conversations. The small French villages where the resistance fighters smuggled children out in wagons and women planted gardens out of the treasured few seeds they had left, and the long fields where they walked and dreamed of a life beyond the ugliness were real—just as we had discussed.

We have had our ‘near accidents’ as always: we almost hit a cow late at night that wandered out of its field, and, of course, the first thing I thought, ‘I can blog about this!’

We took up every spare place for suitcases in the train car and Paul and I pretended they weren’t ours; and we stared at our host and hostess every morning at the bed and breakfast inn as they grumbled to one another in murderous French. I am not sure if they resented us or they were having troubles in their marriage.

We have a few more days until we leave for home. I am reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway. We have a tour tomorrow on the Roaring Twenties—Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Ford, Eliot, Picasso, Dali—all the places they ate, drank and lived. Gertrude Stein better be on the top of the list—she mentored them all, and of course her lover, Alice B. Toklas.

I’ve never been a Hemmingway fan, but I am loving this book. Remember last month when you asked me ‘Lesley, why are you writing? What are you going to do?’ I didn’t how to answer without stumbling over my words trying to make sense of my writing life. So, I’ll let Hemmingway speak for all writers: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Looking forward to seeing you in December.

Much love,

Lesley

The Taste, Sound, Touch, Smell and View of Paris Is Unrelenting and Beautifully So

Paris is an assault on the senses.

Last night Paul and I ate dinner in a neighborhood bistro called the Alchemist. We ordered the prix fixe dinner that was listed in chalk on the wall. We didn’t know what we were ordering. Paul was curious.

He stood up in the middle of the restaurant and positioned his phone to take a picture of the whole menu written in loopy, smudged handwriting. It was a moment where I experienced what it must be like to be Paul married to me.

“Sit down,” I hissed. “Everyone is looking at you.”

Paul sat down and fiddled with his phone. The Google Translate app could take text and translate it into English. He looked up at me. “It didn’t translate. We’ll have to guess.” We each pick an appetizer—goat cheese stuffed peppers for me and lentil soup for Paul. He put a large spoonful in his mouth and then stopped. “Potato?” He swallowed. “Here,” he said and shoved the spoon between my lips. A marble-size lump rolled onto my tongue.

“Not a potato,” I said biting into it. It melted and broke into pieces. It tasted like everything in the soup in one small little bite. The restaurant owner came over and Paul scooped one of the chunks from the soup and held it out for his inspection.

“Champigon,” he shrugged. “Mushroom.”

Paul and I held hands over the table. “It’s a mushroom,” I said relieved.

“A mushroom,” Paul sighed, happy and satiated, and scraped his bowl clean. “A mushroom.”

The sounds of Paris are the barest whisper to the most frightened wail. Dishes are stacked softly, croissants crumble and flake to the table top, feet shift on the Metro as riders wait for their stop, vespas buzz like bees and jump curbs. The scream of ambulances and police vehicles sound like the ones in Rome and London. I think hard, but in that moment, I cannot remember the sound of our own ambulances at home.

Paul attempts to jaywalk across the teeming streets, but I will no longer follow him. He thought we had time to run across a traffic circle near the Alexander III Bridge, and the stoplight turned. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, and buses merged together behind and to the side of us. We ran, splashing through rain puddles, and I yelled, “Shiiiit, Fuuuck, Pauuul.” Now I shake my head and point my finger at him when we become separated on different sides of the street.

Touching Paris is best done in shops while caressing silk scarves laid out in overlapping swaths like splayed decks of cards.  I rub cashmere wraps against my cheek and wonder if perhaps I can get can one more if we buy another suitcase. Two different women have taken off my over garments, eager for me to see the grace of the scarf wrapped around my throat, the drop of a sweater against my leg, or the elegance of fur snuggled against my neck.

“Here, here,” one woman fretted, unwinding my scarf and throwing it to Paul. She pulls on the back of my collar and eases my coat off. This too, she tosses to my husband. He sits, refusing to remove the 5 euro hat he bought while my back was turned. He hunches on a low stool and glowers at the carpeted floor. It’s even worse when he decides to wait outside. He paces back and forth in front of windows always staying within view.

“It’s beautiful,” I say as I admire it in the mirror. It’s a black swing coat with black fur ringing the neck and circling the cuffs. She takes my hands and tucks them together so it looks like I have a muff between my fingers.

“It’s 500 euros, Darling,” she coos. “A coat for life, a coat to remember Paris.” I feel myself weakening. If I average the cost of the coat across over my lifetime it begins to seem like a deal. The saleslady wanders away to allow Paul and I time to negotiate.

“It’s fox,” Paul said holding my things out. “The fur is black fox.” I shed the coat instantly and hand it back to her. She whisks it away, cradling it in her arms like a wedding dress.

In Paris it is as if you cannot separate a smell from what it is or what it will become. The Seine’s waters are brackish, quick, and malodorous, moving and churning towards a port I cannot imagine. On the sidewalk at night we walk through clouds of flour that hold the promise of tomorrow’s croissant. Meat steams on plates, and unlike the States, swim in pools of au jus. Flowers on the street corners smell spicy and unusual. Buckets of Birds of Paradise, spiky and exotic, stand tall and graceful, while hydrangeas, heavy and full, are unmovable.  I feel displaced, lost, adrift. Decades ago my children and I would make Christmas cookies together and the flour drifted over us in a haze. I did not know I would walk through a cloud of flour in so different a place and time. Similarly, on my wedding day, I was unaware that the flowers I carried in my simple bouquet would someday lay in my gloved hand on a freezing Paris morning. Although aromas both linger and flee, they can unseat you and wash over you with memories made then and now.

The taste, sound, touch, and smell of Paris layer over one another like a tapestry, and it is impossible to pull the threads apart once they are bound together. To see Paris, however, is different. The enormous buildings, hundreds and more years old, feature copper cornices galvanized into green. The Louvre’s glittering pyramid looks like it has always been a part of the eight-century year old museum. Notre Dame’s Gothic spire and silent towers come to life when the bells toll. But, it is the moment you catch sight of her that make you swallow the lump in your throat and think to yourself, ‘It was worth the wait.’

The Eiffel Tower looms vast over the Seine. She is more substantial than I thought she would be. Her base is massive, and the interlocking metal skeleton appears determined as she climbs towards the top. She becomes graceful as the legs merge into the center. When I was in junior high school, I tacked a poster of her standing in the face of a setting sun to my bedroom wall. She was my totem, my affirmation that my romantic soul (so out of proportion), would someday find legitimacy. Never did I think it would take until my 52nd birthday to stand beneath her and watch her illuminating lights glow in the foggy night.  I looked at Paul and noticed the shine in his eyes. He looked just like I imagined he did as a small boy on Christmas morning. We clutch each other in the cold and laugh and kiss and laugh again.

I am convinced I can do anything in Paris now. I have tasted a soup in one marvelous bite, donned a fur coat whose secret made my heart blanch for being unaware, thrilled at the clash of traffic causing me to curse at the top of my lungs, discovered the allure of a scent, like a siren, that calls me back and leads me forward, but mostly, it is the Grande Dame herself who said, ‘You were right to wait. Your life is unrelenting and beautifully so.’

Finding a Way to Make New Friends in France

img_4653We’re here. We’re in Paris. I’ve already overcome my initial fears: to find my luggage, secure a taxi, negotiate the language barrier, put in the correct codes to the building, and turn the key in the right lock of the right flat, and figure out how to use the toilet. I was afraid to face a bidet. I don’t quite get it.  After 24 hours of flying, sitting, and eating food I normally wouldn’t eat, I need a glass of rose and a salad.

I look haggard in the mirror. I mean bad. I slather on my new Estee Lauder makeup, and I recognize my face begin to take shape. We decide to go out and find some food, so we press the elevator button—impair, meaning the odd floors—and wait for it to arrive. Paul looks at me and cocks his head.

“You don’t have any lips.” He sounds lost. We abandon the elevator and go back into the flat. I find lipstick and carefully outline my lips and fill them in.

“That’s better,” Paul said and pressed the button for the elevator.

I think of our other trips to Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Italy, Malta, Sicily, and Tunisia. Not for a minute did I worry about not fitting in in any of those places. I was the usual Lesley—marching through the streets, looking over my shoulder at Paul lagging behind, engaging with the locals, smiling, and making new friends.

So, what is different about France?

I’m afraid that my big approach to life will be too much. I’ll offend the sensibilities of a measured society filled with subtle cultural norms that I could blow out of the water without meaning to. img_4656

So, we arrive at a bar called Barracuda, and I couldn’t help myself. “Do you speak English?” I sputtered to the hostess. I intended to lead with classic “Bonjour, Madame”, but the true Lesley rocketed to the surface.

“Of course,” she said with a big smile. I had to stop myself from hugging her. Over a simple meal of salad and bread and cheese, we chatted with the bartender/barista, hostess, waitress, and patrons at the next table. I advised them of Airbnb’s new “Experiences” offerings where photographers, historians, tour guides, chefs, and artists could design a class—an experience—and market it on the website. A female photographer from Finland who speaks four languages, squeezed my arm and said,

“I am so glad I met you! I’m wanting to find direction in my life. You’ve given me a new idea.”

Me? I helped a woman who speaks four languages and knows how to use a fancy camera? img_4657

Paul and I walked around the block looking in on boulangeries, bistros, little grocery stores, and spas. We were almost back to the flat when I walked past a store window and screeched to a halt.

“Paul,” I said miffed. “Look.” I gestured at my clothes.

“What?” He was so tired his eyes were glazed over and deep red.

“Did you notice my dress?” He shook his head and then looked down at my legs. My tights and the dress were glued together with static electricity and they bunched up around my waist like an inner tube.

“And you were worried I didn’t have any lips?”

Planning a Paris Vacation in Less than a Month is Possible

So, you ask how Paul and I decided to go to Paris with less than a month to plan. You can thank my friend, Linda. It’s all her fault.

At my job I have to apply to take vacation leave, and when I submitted a leave request to go to Mexico for Thanksgiving, my supervisor wrote a little note at the bottom: “I hope you know this is not Thanksgiving week.”

“Linda,” I called from the bowels of my office. “When’s Thanksgiving?”

“The 22nd,” she replied.

“No, it’s not. It’s the 29th, right? The last week of November.” I was right. I knew I was right.

“Except if there are five weeks in November. Thanksgiving is always the 4th Thursday of November.”

“I thought it was always the last Thursday in November.” My voice quavered.

“Nope.”

In seconds, I was at her desk. “Are you kidding me?”

She pulled the little calendar off the wall next to her computer. She flipped past October and showed me November. In tiny little script, Thanksgiving was printed on the 22nd.

At home I pulled up our travel documents for Mexico. The week of Thanksgiving I had reserved a room in Zihuatanejo, but my airplane tickets were for the next week. I had a place to stay but no way to get there and a way to get there but no place to stay.

The woman on Alaska Airlines was sympathetic. “I really want to use those miles up. Are you sure I can’t change our tickets?”

“No, Ma’am. Since the time is so close, the tickets are prohibitively expensive.”

“Well,” I said aloud in our empty house, “Where else could we go?” Silence. Then the sound of clicking started. Her fingers went faster and faster. Then I heard the triumphant sound of the victory click.

“How about Paris?” She asked. “If you fly Icelandic Air I can even seat you in first class for part of it.”

“Paris?” It was getting dark outside and I didn’t know when Paul would be home. “Book it,” I said urgently. “Right now.”

We were going to Paris. Paul would be okay with it, wouldn’t he? It wasn’t Mexico, but, Paris. We’d been married almost 20 years (if you stretched it a tiny bit, like three years). He would be fine with it. I heard the garage door go up.

“Are we almost done?” I whispered.

“Yes, Mrs. Klenk, you are going to Paris.” She hit three more keys. “It’s on the way to your email account. Have a fabulous time.”

“Hi Honey, I am home.” Paul flipped the lights on and he saw the computer up and the phone on speaker mode.  He leaned against the door and sighed. “Where are we going?”

“Paris,” I smiled. “I knew you’d be on board. We’re even going first class.” His face brightened. “For part of it,” I smiled again and slunk in my chair.

So, for the last three weeks I have been focused on making this trip happen. I booked three different apartments and canceled two. A lovely surprise came out of nowhere, and a dear friend’s daughter-in-law offered her flat for the first part of our trip. I ordered 12 Paris books and maps from Amazon (our postal guy kindly shoves them in our mailbox so they don’t appear on the porch), I purchased tickets to a cabaret show, I booked a Hemmingway and Fitzgerald  Roaring Twenties Bar Tour, signed up for a photo shoot at the Eiffel Tower (only $100 bucks and well worth it if I don’t have to let Paul take selfies of my turkey-skin neck), a Normandy tour of the beaches of D-Day, train tickets to Caen, a rental car to go to Mont St. Michel, and I bought clothes—five different wraps, three pair of boots, four sweaters, two jackets with furry collars, and, I don’t know, a whole lot more, including a suitcase so large I can rest my elbow on it in a standing position. img_4568

Paul, on the other hand, was quiet. Too quiet. I decided to wait until he was watching TV and sneak out to the car to smuggle in my shopping bags. I bought him snappy shirts in peach, pink, and light green for “nights out.” img_4575 He looked at them and didn’t say much. He stared at his phone and flicked  a map on the screen whenever a commercial came on. I waited.

“Okay,” he announced. “I’m good to go.”

“What?” I was on Amazon deciding if I needed a green wrap to go with something I vaguely remembered I ordered that was green.

“I can get us around Paris now.”

“Explain, please.”

“I’ve been studying the map, and I know where everything is.” He tapped his head. “It’s all here.”

Thank God, I thought. He probably hasn’t even noticed all of the clothes.

“Paul, there’s something we need to get you as soon as we get to Paris.”

“Hmm.” NCIS was on. Maybe I could squeak this one past him.

“Men wear scarves over there. They are not deer hunting scarves. They’re silk scarves. Remember Pete, your brother, wears one?”

“I’m not wearing a scarf.” He didn’t look at me.

“Well,” I protested.

“Nope. Not going to do it.”

For the time being I have given it up. I am so far in the win category with my “Paris Prep” I will be more strategic as far as the scarf goes. Maybe the City of Light will move him. It’s too bad he doesn’t have a turkey-skin neck like me; he’d have a scarf already.

Boat Ownership: Delightful Recollections, Empty-Nest Freedom, or Mid-Life Crisis?

boat out thereThe first time we bought a boat we thought we would create lasting memories for our children. The second time we believed mooring a vessel in front of our house would magically make boating effortless.

We were wrong—twice.

Fifteen years ago, we bought a 22-foot, 1987 Sea Swirl that, once in the water, rode like a crappy, coughing, loose-in-the-joints, convertible car. We owned the boat for two years. The kids, ages 7, 9, and 11, tried everything to get out of the trips.  One time our daughter developed a mysterious rash that I believe she contracted by rubbing her face all over the cat, our oldest son held up his broken thumb and declared he couldn’t get his cast wet, and our youngest, well, he informed us he was sure he was going to poop, but he didn’t know when. IMGA0747

We were clueless the first summer. We slammed into a sandbar forcing us to huddle in the fart-filled air of the cuddy until the propeller sprung free. We tied up on a state-owned island and challenged the kids to make it around the sand before the tide came in. Somehow we lost them in the bushes and found them strung in trees yelling for help. Then, there is the memory of the boys tapping me on the arm and opening their mouths revealing a bevy of tiny crabs trying to escape the tongues that quivered with laughter. Unforgettable.

Picture 140

The second summer we bought a towable water toy for tubing. Our ancient, wheezing boat died in the middle of a lake and we were surrounded by a swarm of jet skis and boats that, collectively, created a high-pitched whine worse than a dentist’s drill. They rocketed past us sending cascades of water into the boat. The kids hid in the cuddy afraid they would be recognized. We waved for help and someone towed us back to the boat launch. My husband was humiliated and swore we’d never have a boat again.

It was my idea to get another boat. We were empty-nesters. Our kids were gone. It would be the two of us cruising on the calm, clear water, and our darling dog could hang off the side barking at the waving people on shore. My husband bought it hook, line and sinker, and we purchased a sleek, little Bayliner in mid-June. It was so pretty. Our friends patted it and hinted for invitations. We were vague, promising nothing. Now that we actually owned a boat we dreaded going boating. We remembered.

It sat in our driveway for six weeks.

Six weeks. My husband worked 12-hour days, we traveled to the East Coast to visit our grand baby, we helped prepare our daughter’s yard for her wedding, and we tried to catch our youngest son before he left for a trip to a foreign country.  It was late July. Then, out of nowhere, we had a rare free evening and I couldn’t think fast enough to come up with a pleasant chore around the house that could eat up the hours until sunset.

We were boat owners. We should want to boat, shouldn’t we? I looked around the yard for the cat. Maybe there was still time to bury my face in her sleek fur. The reality was our desire to own a boat was a dream—the first time and the second time. Our motivation was the unrelenting march of years that now had forced us into our 50s. We were having a mid-life crisis. We wanted to be those boating people—you know the ones. Their kids can stand up on the wake board the first time and the adults don’t have to suck in their stomachs while wearing their bathing suits.

The dog jumped into the car, tongue hanging out, head cocked, anticipating our adventure. At least he looked the part. We put the boat in the water—my husband saying ‘hold the line’ and me answering ‘you mean the rope?’ and took off from the downtown dock and headed towards our little inlet.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked. After years of marriage I had discovered the open-ended statement was a gentle entry into what I really wanted to ask—‘what the hell are we doing?’

“We’re eventually tying up to the buoy,” he said cutting the motor.

“We have a buoy,” I murmured to the dog. “Did you know that?” The dog was miserable. He hid under my husband’s legs the entire trip. Panting heavily, I am pretty sure he knew he had to poop and it was imminent. img_3509

“Get ready,” I heard my husband say over the sound of the rising propeller. “This is as close as I can get. We have to get the rowboat now.”

There was still a vast expanse of water between us and the shore. He dropped the anchor. “Are you sure it is going to stay put?” I whispered. “What happens if it just floats away?”

“It’s not going to float away,” my husband paused. “I think. I hope.” He lips were set. “Let’s go.” He handed me his glasses. “Let me get settled in the water. Then you can hand them to me.” The bifocals were new.

I forgot to hand him the glasses. I stepped into the water and sunk into mud that reached my calves. I panicked and grabbed for him. We teeter-tottered back and forth until we eased into a upright position.

“Honey,” I said, seaweed clinging to my chest. “I’m so sorry.”  We stared down into the water. The glasses were gone. The tide was going out and the mud was churning in the waves.

It was cold, the rocks hurt my feet, and I felt terrible. I deeply regretted my enthusiastic sales pitch that brought us to this moment. The dog launched himself off the side of the boat and swam madly to shore. Once he landed on the beach he bolted for the bushes.

Leaving muddy footprints in the dust of the bulkhead, we grabbed the rowboat we had stashed behind a weathered stump. We carried it down to the beach where I dropped my end before we got to the water. Glaring, my husband pointed at a yucky seat. “Sit. Do not stand up.” He waded back to the boat and pulled up the anchor. I sat in the bucking, aluminum boat all the way to the buoy. While he secured the line and snapped the buttons on the cover, I held vigil in the moldy interior and watched for spiders.  img_34701Finally, we paddled back to the beach. It took a while. We kept going in circles. In a few choice words, my husband informed me my strokes weren’t matching his. In silence, we dumped the rowboat into its hiding place. img_3477

Back at the house, my husband had a beer. I had a shower. The dog hid in the laundry room shuddering every few minutes.

Later, at 11:00 pm, I said, “the tide’s all the way out. Let’s go look.”

It was a ridiculous idea, but the glasses could be lodged in some rocks. We strapped on head lamps and tiptoed down to the beach in the quiet darkness. He took one side and I took another. The moon was almost full and lights sparkled across the bay. We heard the water slapping the side of our boat. It was still there. No luck with the glasses, however.

“We can look every time we come down,” I offered.

“Yeah,” he sighed.

“The kids are going to think it is funny.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Another story for the boating collection.”

Our kids’ experiences are ensconced in the past, but our future as middle-age boaters is still an unwritten page. When the boat leaves the safety of the anchored buoy, we are rudderless and have to make our own way. We have to let go of the desire to be the glamorous couple effortlessly steering through someone else’s messy wake. We are the messy wake! When it is just the two of us (I am fairly certain the dog is done) we can release our stomachs, pour a glass of wine in a shady cove and laugh over our errors and triumphs. The best part?  We don’t know the stories of the future. Let’s just hope they don’t involve glasses falling overboard—which our neighbor found by the way.

img_3523.jpg  boat on shore

To Tell the Truth

When my family sits around the table at a holiday dinner, my father sometimes shakes his head when I recount a memory from my childhood. He doesn’t believe my stories. He smiles indulgently at my mother as if they agree. But there is one memory my mother and I share, and it is the truth. Why she doesn’t speak up and confirm my story, I am not sure. Perhaps the habits of the past still cling to her like fragile paper whose folds are too delicate to open.

Our yard backed up to a meadow of straw grass and a small grove of shady trees. I often stood at the edge wondering what was beyond the waving tops of the tall grass.

“Play on the swing set,” my mother said. “Your brother will be up soon.” She looked tired as she smoothed my hair.  She was responsible for so much back then. Not only did she have to raise two children, but she had to give dinner parties, and keep the house so it looked like a magazine. And, she had to be a wife. In 1973, that was a job in itself.

I walked until I reached the neat edge of our property where my father had fertilized, watered and mowed his piece of land. I lifted my shoe with the sensible leather laces and stepped over the strict green line. I did not look back. I trailed my fingers through the swaying strands that arched over my head. I felt my heart drumming in my chest as I pushed further and further into the wild growth. Grey grasshoppers whirred crazily past me. A young black garter snake slithered under my foot just as I lifted my shoe. Startled, I stopped.

I heard the unexpected sound of rushing water, dipping and falling, and splashing. I parted the grass, my footsteps high and cautious. The meadow ended at a teasing creek that bounced and jostled past rocks strewn haphazardly in the water.

It was autumn. Painted Lady butterflies, their orange and black wings fanning in the baking heat, sunned themselves on the dry tops of boulders. Mayfly, thousands of them, danced in a tight swarm above the water unaware that their life cycle would end in a few short hours.

The creek was low and there was enough room for me to stand on a log and peer into the water. Concentrating, I leaned my arm in up to the shoulder to touch a brilliant red leaf trapped under the surface.

The fall was slow. The log rolled as my weight shifted with my arm, and I went face first into the creek. It must have been a still hole of water I fell in. I didn’t hit bottom, not right away. But, soon, the heaviness of my shoes and the weight of my soaked dress bore down on me. Then, I remember, there was peacefulness.

I looked overhead at the canopy of trees leaning towards each other whispering and praying. The pale blue sky was framed by yellow aspen leaves. My eyes moved side to side watching Emperor dragonflies with iridescent wings flit and hover above my face. The gentle water gurgled in my ears and my hands bobbed in the current. I think about it now, and I must have been terrified. I think too of how alone I was. I think last of how I might have drowned. But I didn’t. I grabbed all around me reaching for rocks and sticks, anything to hold onto, anything anchored in the earth. Finally, my small, frantic fingers found a branch and I pulled myself out of the creek.

I howled silently like babies do when they are so stunned by pain or fear they cannot make a sound. Stumbling, I ran through the grass, the blades tearing at my legs, my eyes blurred with tears and mucky water. I found my mother.

She shushed me, stripping the muddy clothes from my body. She drew a bath and washed my hair, rinsing it carefully by cupping her hand so the soap would not run down into my eyes. She dressed me again and laid me down on my bed. As I fell asleep, I heard my brother’s wail as he woke from his nap. My mother’s patient footsteps slipped past my door.

And that is all I remember. When I talk about the day I almost died when I was seven, my father shakes his head. “It didn’t happen,” he says. But I see it in the picture of me standing proudly in front of the yellow school bus in my new blue Montgomery Ward dress. The watercolor sky, the church of trees, my hair floating like fallen straw on water, it is all there.

The Abuela Behind the Shower Curtain

 

“Where are we going?” Paul asked as the ancient public bus bumped over a particularly deep pot hole on the highway heading south of Zihuatanejo.

“Cooking with Carmen,” I read off the itinerary. (I make one for every trip).

“And, where did you find out about this class?” Paul questioned. We both flew in the air. I felt my teeth grind together when we landed.

“The internet. We’re meeting Alejandro and Carmen at their house in Los Achote.” I fluffed my skirt up to get some air. The 100% humidity was making it difficult to breathe.

“Did you check with a company to make sure it was legit?” Paul asked.

“Of course,” I said offended. “They’re recommended on a local site.” I folded the papers and tossed them in my bag.

“Okay, I’ve got Roberto on speed dial.”

“Ha,” was my response. Roberto was our taxi driver turned best buddy.

20171017_161100335384575.jpgPaul and I stood alone on the side of the highway where we had been ejected by the wheezing, laboring bus. Los Achote was deserted. A few chickens clucked in the bushes and a faded Coca Cola sign stood in front of a building. It looked like any other small Mexican village. The roads were dusty and rutted. The houses were small and built creatively out of all types of building materials including wooden beams, concrete blocks, and rusted metal panels. The houses meandered along the street, some hidden in tall weeds others in plain view hugging the road.  13757402601465.jpeg

“Welcome, I am Alejandro,” a small man appeared from a path through some weeds. Paul and I stopped. We squeezed hands.

“Hello,” I said picking my way through the underbrush. Paul shook hands with Alejandro. “Come,” he said. “Follow me.” We trailed along behind him parting the grass in front of us. 20171017_105814998640301.jpg

“Do you want to leave?” Paul murmured over his shoulder.

“I paid ninety bucks,” I said under my breath.

“It better be good.”

“It’s an adventure,” I replied.

I asked Paul once if it would have been better if he had married a calm, more steady woman. He actually stopped to think about it.

“No,” he confessed. “It would have been boring. Maybe it would be nice not to have so many surprises though.”

He got the silent treatment for the rest of the day. Adventures and surprises are a hair breath apart; he knows that. It is all in how you see it.

We approached Alejandro and Carmen’s house. It didn’t fit with the rest of the neighborhood. Even though it stood tightly closed with locked gates and iron bars on the windows, two sparkling clean cars were parked in the driveway. Even the hubcaps were painfully scrubbed.

Paul and I ducked our heads under the front doorway and entered the dim front room. Fans circled slowly overhead. The blinds were drawn and the wood floor shone with furniture polish.

It looked like an Ashley Furniture store ad. Expensive leather couches anchored the room and a large flat screen TV hung on the wall. Fake flowers were plunged in vases and TV trays stood at attention in the corner. Doilies, hundreds of doilies, covered every surface of the room.

“Welcome,” Carmen said coming into view. “Please come in.” She was a head taller than her husband. Her chin was lifted in the air and she wore reading glasses on the end of her nose. I could barely detect her Spanish accent. Alejandro’s was pronounced.

I tried peering around her to see into the rest of the house, but Paul grabbed my dress and pulled me back. I could see the set of his jawline. Adventure or surprise—he didn’t care at the moment. He just wanted me to behave.

Carmen waved her arm towards her spotless kitchen. “Please come and wash your hands.” She started to lead us to the kitchen and I scurried past her to the hall bathroom I could see from the front room. “Please this way,” Carmen fretted, but I was already beyond her and pushing open the door.

“Paul, Honey, you need to wash your hands,” I called. He came in the bathroom and eased the door shut.

“Do not do this,” he fumed splashing water and soaping his hands.

“Do what?”

“Act like a detective,” he said. “This is not the time. This is their home.” He pulled a towel sharply off the rack.

Next to us the shower curtain fluttered. We heard a long, deep sigh.

“Paul’s someone’s in the shower.” I reached for the light fabric curtain. My hand hesitated and stopped.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said staring at the curtain. “I shouldn’t look.” A high window filtered light down into the tub and shower combo. There was the outline of a stool with narrow legs. A large mass sat on the stool. It hunched over like an old woman.

“Paul, someone is in there!” I let out a tiny whimper. The form shifted. We heard clicking like the sound of knitting needles touching delicately together. Click, click, pause, click, click. It stopped.

“Hola,” a voice intoned barely above a whisper.

“Hola,” I echoed my nose almost touching the curtain.

I wrapped my fingers around Paul’s arm and dug my fingernails into his skin.

“Ouch,” Paul glared. I put my finger to my lips.

“Please come out now,” Carmen called. “It is time for the lesson.”

As we left the bathroom, a rustling sound fluttered the shower curtain again. It sound just like a woman shaking her dress.

********

“We are making Chicharron Albest. It is my secret recipe made of pork and special ingredients.” Carmen clasped a large cutting board to her breast and then carefully set it down on the immaculate white countertop. Alejandro had draped himself over a chair at one end of the table. Paul and I sat glued together with stiff backs at the other end of the table. An entire soccer team could have sat in between us. The glass tabletop was spotless, devoid of any dirt or finger prints. 20171017_1145141001745987.jpg

I had made a decision. Carmen was hiding her elderly mother in the shower for fear the woman’s ancient cackling would drive us away. It was likely influenced by my love of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s novel, but I stood by my supposition. ‘The abuela probably has to eat in the shower too,’ I surmised, my face a mask as I watched Carmen carefully choose her cooking utensils like a surgeon selecting operating instruments.

I was convinced she was forced to sit in the shower and knit doilies while the cooking lesson took place.  In Hispanic culture grandmothers are revered by their families and sheltered in loving homes. I had decided that Carmen was the exception.

“Who will go first?” Carmen entreated. “You,” she said smiling and crooking her finger at me. “What is your name?”

“Lesley,” I gulped.

“You will chop garlic. You have done that, yes?” I thought about revealing that we had pint-sized jars of minced garlic in the U.S. but decided it wasn’t wise.

“Even size,” she instructed as I clumsily clomped the butcher knife. “Smaller.” I took a deep breath.

“I’m left-handed. It makes everything harder,” I looked up at her bravely. “Especially chopping.”

“Let me have it.” Carmen diced the garlic into unrecognizable small bits.

“You?” She gestured to my husband.

He cleared his throat. “Paul.” 20171017_114000705327015.jpg

“You will do the onion.” Paul stood at the cutting board waiting for his turn.

“Do you have a lot of cooking lessons with tourists?”

“Yes,” Carmen stated flatly.

“Yes,” Alejandro repeated.

Paul began chopping the onion with careful strokes.

“More quickly,” she ordered. “It will be even if you go quickly.” Paul chopped and chopped. The raw onion smell filled the room and tears mixed with the sweat rolling down the side of his face.

“So, Carmen, does your mother live with you?” I probed.

Carmen smashed a garlic glove with the heel of her hand and the side of the butcher knife. Paul kept his head down frantically chopping the remains of the white onion.

“My mother is a drunk,” Carmen said without emotion.

“Her mother is a drunk,” Alejandro repeated.

“We lived in Mexico City and my brother tricked her. He had her sign a paper saying she would buy a house in Los Achotes.” Carmen turned on the gas, and a flame erupted into the air.

“She didn’t have any money,” Carmen dismissed, flinging the minced garlic and the shredded onions into the pan.

“She didn’t have any money,” Alejandro murmured.

“But she signed the paper and my brother made us honor her debt.” Carmen’s biceps bulged as she swirled the onions and garlic in the pan.

“The debt,” Alejandro said laying his head on the table.

The sound of a delighted giggle came from the bathroom. Alejandro strode through the living room and shut the bathroom door. Carmen turned and faced us with a giant cleaver held over her head.

“Now we cut the meat. Come,” she ordered. “You will start first.”

I struggled to my feet. I was shaking. She held the cleaver out to me.

“You hold it like this.” She wrapped my fingers handle and shook it firmly. “Now, chop. Rapido!”

The meat was tough and dried. Stained a deep brownish-red, it was like trying to chop beef jerky. There was a large lump that defeated even the cleaver.

“That is not a bone. This meat is already cooked. Here, taste,” she picked up a piece of the meat and held it to my lips. 20171017_110917886351462.jpg

“Paul, come chop. I have to go to the bathroom.” As I fled the kitchen, the meat, onions, and garlic sizzled in the silence. Even the dust motes in the dim air were waiting.

I shut the door behind me and turned on the faucet to drown out my voice.

“Hello,” I stammered.

“Hello,” the bobbing and weaving shadow behind the shower curtain replied.

“Are you there?” I consoled.

“Are you there?”

I stood, my heart pounding out of my chest, and willed myself to pull back the curtain. The hunched form seemed to shake its head back and forth.

“Can I do anything? Are you okay?” I pleaded.

“Okay,” it breathed. I flushed the toilet.

“Adios,” I whispered.

“Goodbye.”

Carmen set a doilie in front of each of us and placed our plates on them. She put the bowls of meat and a container of frothy green liquid in front of us. She went to the oven and pulled out a basket of tortillas. Tears dripped from the corners of my eyes as I ate.

“What is wrong? Is it the meat?” she growled.

“No, Carmen. It is the onions,” I said. “Paul chopped them too uneven.”

We ate everything, shoveling it into our mouths as fast as we could. It was delicious and if I could have smuggled the frothy green stuff home I would have gladly. Carmen and Alejandro sat at the far end of the table with stony faces. They could hardly wait until we were gone.

********

“So, Roberto,” Paul said pulling his door shut. “Is there any way a Mexican couple would keep their abuela in the bath tub while they were teaching a cooking class?”

“Paul?” He turned abruptly around in his seat to stare at my husband. “No, I don’t think so. But, they might keep a parrot in there. To keep it quiet so it wouldn’t interrupt.”

“Ha,” Paul crowed. “It was a parrot, of course. Lesley thought it was an abuela.”

“Well, Lesley could be right,” Roberto acknowledged. “We don’t want our loco abuelas getting out and hurting themselves. Perhaps it could have been an abuela.” He smiled at me in the rear view mirror. Roberto is such a good guy. He gets me.

Then I remembered. Paul said there was a difference between adventures and surprises, did he not?

“Okay, how many parrots do you know are fluent in English and Spanish?”

That shut them up.

********

“Okay, let’s work through this and come to a reasonable and logical conclusion.” Paul and I were swinging in hammocks tucked under a thatched roof of a beach side restaurant. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? I was ready to come out swinging to defend my abuela theory.

“Let’s look at the evidence,” Paul said passing me a margarita. “Go, Nancy Drew.”

“Someone crocheted all of those doilies,” I started strong.

“Carmen in her spare time,” Paul pushed off with his big toe.

“No way. She is constantly cleaning and cooking.”

“Alejandro?”

“I am not dignifying that with answer,” I retorted. “Point to me. Next piece of evidence. What was the figure behind the shower curtain?”

“Parrot in a cage.”

“Woman on a stool. No points. We didn’t look behind the curtain.” We sipped our drinks.

“Clicking knitting needles? I offered.

“Bored parrot pacing his bar and clicking his ugly toes,” Paul smacked in satisfaction. “Point.”

“Rustling of clothes?” I continued.

“Beating of wings.” Paul sounded bored. “Point.”

“No. You’ve never worn a skirt that you can rustle on a hot day. Point.”

“Fine.”

“The deep and heartfelt sigh.” I waited.

“Old, sad parrot.” I swung for him and missed.

“Hey, careful. You don’t want to spill that. You’d have to get up and get another one.”

“What about the fact that she could speak both Spanish and English? How more human can you get?” I countered.

“Bilingual parrot,” Paul said his eyes closed. I socked him hard. “Ouch. Why’d you do that?”

“Because,” I stopped. I didn’t know why.

“We’re on vacation and we had fun today, didn’t we? I thought it was great.” He came over to sit in my hammock. “You did a great job finding that class.”

“Get out of my hammock. There is no way this will hold the both of us.” But it did. We swung gently in the (thankfully) oversized hammock and sipped our frozen and salty drinks until our foreheads ached.

“I have one more piece of evidence,” I said sitting on the edge of the hammock. “What about that crazy giggle when Carmen said her mother was a drunk?”

“Comedian parrot?” Paul asked.

I stood up. The hammock flew aloft and dumped Paul onto the sand.

“Hey,” he said surprised. I walked away without looking back. I wiggled two fingers to the bartender. Time for another margarita before our next adventure.  137581833741731.jpeg

Crawling Under a Bathroom Stall Again…

Oh, where to begin…I texted a few  friends a snippet of this story thinking it was probably an inappropriate event to share with the world (Facebook) even with context. As it evolved into chapter two, I thought, why not? Why not tell the blogging world about a story that calls to mind college days, desperate moments having to do with immediate bathroom issues, and, quick, probably not well-thought out decisions. Why not?

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A restaurant in the bottom floor of one of the oldest hotels in town, Hotel Del Pescador,  has a two-for-one margarita special all day long. In Zihuantanejo, restaurant owners, street vendors, and beach hawkers all call out to us, “Lady, Gentleman, come, drink, eat, and buy our fine things. Come now, we make margaritas for you. “

Duh, we went.

Two necklaces, one pair of earrings, one family of stone turtles (I’m still trying to figure how many there are in total), four shirts for the boys, three dresses for the girls, and suddenly, I have to pee. Bad.

I’ve only had two margaritas which is entirely manageable. 22489935_1579994358689990_6101645083406976537_n

I go to the bathroom at the back of the restaurant. I saunter into the first stall I see. Mistake, Paul’s mom tells me. ‘Always check to make sure there is enough paper.’

I admit that would have been a good idea. I closed the stall door behind me and slide the door lock to the right. The door lock falls apart in my hand. I catch it. It can wait. I really have to pee. As I hunched over the toilet letting no part of my body touch it (thank you, Amber for the squat exercises last week), I hold the little piece of metal and stare up at the door latch. I’m not sure what to do. I spin the toilet paper thing around and nothing comes out. I begin to realize I am facing a bit of a problem. I drip dry while I ponder my dilemma. I was a prisoner in the stall.20171020_1826431931233161.jpg

I stood up, adjusted the dampness, and concentrated on the non-functioning  door latch. I shoved the little piece of metal into the slot where it had broken off and twisted it quickly. Nope. The door latch didn’t move.

I looked around at the stall. It was clean, actually really clean for Mexican standards. I looked down at the floor and winced. Not so much. Plus, there was only about a two foot gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. I shook once more and bent down to my knees. It strikes me then. In 1987, I was visiting my cousin at WSU and we crossed the Idaho state border because we could drink alcohol before we were twenty-one. Then too, there was a bathroom stall malfunction and I had emerged from the floor like a creature from the swamp.  Why, thirty years apart, was I forced to get on my hands and knees and crawl under the door of the bathroom stall because of a door lock malfunction?

It couldn’t be helped, so I just did it. I crawled under the door and snaked my way out of the stall. At the last minute my shirt scrunched up and I was bare skin on the floor of the Mexican bathroom. I immediately thought to myself. ‘Wait until I tell Paul.’ It is a good sign in our marriage that I can hardly wait to tell my husband about the most horrifying and hilarious moments in my life. I put the broken half of the lock next to the sink, pulled my shirt down, and fluffed my humidity-curled hair. I cringed when I realized I now had bathroom floor gook in my red tresses as if it were hair product.

“We have to go,” I said to Paul when I reached the sand. “Now.” The various parts of me had slowed in their drip-drying process as the full force of the 100% humidity hit me.  “Trust me, it’s important.”

“Whatever,” Paul said in a happy, margarita-induced stage. We paid, left, and hiked the 166 stairs to our hotel. Somewhere between step 25 and 100, I belted out into a high-pitched whine an explanation of what had happened in the bathroom stall.

“Are you going to laugh?” I demanded.

“No, I am scared of what might happen if I say anything.”

“You are so in trouble,” I said.

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“I just have one question,” Paul said shying away from the possible blows. “Are you going to change your underwear?”

********

So, would a normal person go back to the same restaurant knowing full well it was a possibility she might have to use the restroom again? Absolutely.

Four days later, we were walking past the restaurant where the whole debacle had happened.

“Hey, we remember you, two margaritas for one price this day too!” The waiter called to us holding out a chair in the sand.

I looked at Paul. “Do you think they know it was me?” I whispered.

“You mean the person who locked everyone out of the stall?” he asked.

“Shh, quit talking so loud.” I glared at him with narrowed eyes. “Your life could get so miserable,” I threatened coolly just under my breath.

We had barely finished our first margarita when my body signaled it was time—urgently—to go to the bathroom. My eyes bugged out.

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

Paul began laughing and struggling for breath. He waved his hand not looking at me. Afraid to look at me.

I rushed to the back of the restaurant. I pushed open the door and automatically threw open the door to the stall I had destroyed only days before. I slammed the door shut. Someone had used gorilla glue and thoroughly installed the door latch again. I shoved the lock, banging it shut firmly.

Blowing air out of my mouth, my quads clenched tightly (thanks again, Amber), I prepared to hunch down over the seat. A slow heat burned through me. I had a big problem. I was wearing a “romper”. For those of us who remember the 1980s, it is a one-piece jumpsuit. There was no way out of it unless I could figure out how to get the zipper down. Same stall. Different problem.

I managed to pull off a contortionist move and get it unzipped half way down my back. Then, I shimmied it down over my hips. The fabric strained and I could see daylight between the seams of the zipper. I was not going to pull this off in a hunched position. I lowered myself to the toilet seat. (Sorry, Amber). I didn’t care what germs I would carry with me on my clothes. I leaned over to pull the toilet paper.

“Mom, I wailed. “How could this happen again?” No toilet paper. Not a single sheet. Could it get any worse? Of course it could. I stood up wearing only a bra on my top half, wrapped the loose romper fabric around my waist and opened the stall door.  I had lost all respect for myself, the romper, and the authentic Mexican breakfast I had four hours earlier. I spread my feet apart and carefully hopped to the stall next door. I grabbed more toilet paper and hopped back to my home away from home. Sitting there I had a lot of time to reflect on my entire experience with the Hotel of the Fish and the women’s restroom.

I went out to Paul and he grinned at me. His toes were buried in the sand, his Mexican hat was jauntily perched on his head, and a fresh margarita sat in front of him and another one in front of my empty chair. I took a long drink and looked with deliberation at the man of my dreams. Should I tell him? 20171020_1846021749731390.jpg

Crawling under the door the first time was understandable, but going back to the same bathroom and choosing the same stall in an emergency bathroom situation and ending up hopping around half-naked looking for more toilet paper is an unforgettable story he will roll out at every social gathering we will attend for the rest of our long married life. So, Friends, that is why I am sharing this story with you now. Yes, I am preempting Paul’s version which never matches mine anyway. For further proof of the veracity of my version, I’ll even wear the romper.

The worst part is that I cannot swear a series of events such as these will never happen again, because trouble finds me wherever I am hiding, even it is a lonely bathroom stall in a second world country. All I ask of future events is that they not involve skin to floor contact in a sticky seaside bathroom or a bra-only bunny-hop search for the impossible.

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Roberto

Roberto was my husband, brother and friend today. He is our taxi driver, our consultant with Mexican culture and our confidant in parenting twenty-something children.

We worked out a plan with Roberto. He would be our primary mode of transportation for our week in Zihuantanejo. We would call him for a hasty trip into town to pick up water or for a long ride out to Treconnes to sit on the quiet, uninhabited beach. But, it was in the last 24 hours that we got to know Roberto–and he got to know us.

To become a taxi driver in Mexico, you have to purchase your taxi license. It was about $325,000 dollars—not pesos. Roberto said he worked  many jobs in the United States and Mexico and raised four children while saving up enough money to purchase his license. It took him sixteen years.  His four children are all boys. They need school uniforms, sports equipment (mainly soccer), and money for the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean college; it means Mexican parents help their children with their futures—whatever that future might be.

Roberto was able to open locked gates, secure reservations, traverse private roads, and advise us on activities in and around Zihuantanejo. He took us to a gold market, tiptoed with us through a 140-year-old cathedral, and laughed at us while we pretended to smoke cigars with him. Paul and I rode along in the back seat  of his taxi bumping and nodding. Roberto can do anything.  We are believers.

********

Wednesday morning, Paul wasn’t feeling well. He’d had a cold since Sunday, but it wasn’t getting better. He had the chills, a head ache, running nose, and the beginnings of a cough. I should have paid more attention. It was my failing as a wife.

“l want to go shopping in Ixtapa,” I announced at breakfast.

“Roberto,” Paul said looking over at me, “Lesley wants to go shopping.” They were on the phone together. “Okay, I’ll tell her you’ll be here in 15 minutes.”

I shot out of my chair and made for the three flights of stairs to our room. Two hours of shopping without Paul! Thank goodness for his cold!

I sat in the back seat while Roberto drove the 20 minutes to Ixtapa. We joked and laughed and talked about Paul and his wife. I threatened him that he couldn’t sit in the car and wait for me to finish shopping—he wasn’t my husband, I told him sternly.

We arrived in Ixtapa and I looked around. There was nothing. There were about ten hotels and two blocks of shopping. I was so disappointed.

“Well, I’d least like to look at the beach,” I said.

“Okay,” Roberto said parking the car. “I’ll go with you.”

Wait a minute. I was going to walk on the beach with my taxi driver?  I did. We parked our little car, number 623, and walked to the public entrance to the beach. We passed under a concrete entrance way and two men stood up and met us. Roberto held up his taxi license hanging around his neck. They nodded to him and glanced at me. In a rapid Spanish, Roberto stood tall and spoke right back. I understood enough to realize that Roberto had to justify our access to the beach. He was defending me. Like a husband would.

We walked on the beach, my heavy shopping tote bumping my leg with every step in the sand.

“Here, give it to me,” he said sighing and rolling his eyes.

We walked along until I realized that I was putting as much pain on Roberto as I did on Paul. They both hated walking on the beach, going nowhere, doing  nothing, and carrying a rainbow-colored bag with giant handles. 

“Let’s go shopping,” I said wheeling around. “Let me have the bag.”

“Oh no,” Roberto said grimly. “I will carry the bag.”

Back in the car, the air conditioning was struggling to get started. Sweat dripped from under my head and splashed on my shoulders. Roberto looked over his shoulder at me.

“Why don’t you sit up here? It is colder already.” I jumped out of the back seat and opened the front side door. The air conditioning blew my hair, and I shoved my face into the air vent. Roberto laughed until he started wheezing. It felt odd to ride in the front with Roberto and yet, it felt wrong  for me to ride in the back and shout over the sound of the air conditioner.

“Okay, we will meet here at 12:15,” I instructed. “Exactly 12:15. Not earlier, okay?” I looked at him warningly. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. Our deal was that he could work during the time that Paul and I were doing activities as long as we set a pick up time.

It was a glorious two hours. I recklessly spent 2500 pesos. I could not tell you how much that was, but every time I pulled out a 500 pesos bill and laid it on the counter I felt power. Later, after the furor of the day subsided, Paul informed me I spent eighty bucks. It takes so little to make me happy.

At 12:15 I was waiting exactly where Roberto and I agreed to meet. I had the rainbow bag and the five other shopping bags, so I kept alternating them from one side to the other. I kept hearing the sound of a horn beeping, but I ignored it. I was in the right spot. Finally, a girl selling dolphin tours came up to me and said, “Is that guy with you?”

She pointed. It was Roberto. He looked frustrated. I got in the front seat and threw my bags in the back seat. I think I hit Roberto in the head with the rainbow bag.

“We were supposed to meet over there,” I gestured towards the corner.

“Yes, but right here is the same as over there, just on the other side of the street.”

“That doesn’t count. You told me where to be.”

“it is alright,” he said staring out the window, his shoulders hunched.

We drove back to the hotel in silence until Roberto began telling me a long story about the Mexican cartel and how they don’t want people in Mexico doing drugs because they don’t want the shipment to the U.S. delayed. I was interested.

“What happens if you do drugs in Mexico?”

“You get your head cut off.” He made the slicing motion on his neck.

********

When we got back to the hotel, Lena the concierge, met us at the taxi.

“Mr. Paul is not well,” she told me.

“I’ll wait,” Roberto said.

Down at the pool, Paul was laying on a lounge chair. Every time he coughed his chest caved in and a whistle came out.

“Get up, you are going to the doctor.” Looking at my face, he knew not to argue.

Roberto drove fast, careening over the pot holes as we flew down the narrow streets to town. Paul laid his back against the head rest and continued coughing. His face was white. Roberto dashed in and out of the traffic and pulled in next to a pharmacy.

“Come, let’s get him in.” We helped Paul out of the car.

Within less than 30 minutes, Roberto got Paul into an examining room where the doctor took his blood pressure, weighed him, and listened to his heart and lungs. Roberto translated for us, but there times when he and the doctor talked vehemently to one another.

“He’s going to give you an antibiotic shot,” Roberto said steely-faced. “One each for the next three days. I told the doctor you are very sick.”

We were all quiet on the ride home to the hotel. I made arrangements for Roberto to pick us later for dinner. In the meantime, Paul was to rest.

********

It was at least 8:00 at night when we saw Roberto again. We wanted a quiet, fast dinner. No formalities, no linen napkins, no bucket to ice the wine. Just dinner so Paul could go back and rest back in the room.

“Paul, Lesley, we are friends, right?” Roberto seemed troubled.

“Of course, Roberto,” I said.

“Do you need something, Roberto?” Paul asked.

He pulled over onto to side of the road next to the beach and let the engine idle.

“It’s my son. The one who is twenty three? He told me yesterday he had something serious to talk to me about,” he stopped and looked at us in the darkness. “Is this okay to talk to you?” I let Paul answer. It seemed like he needed Paul more than me.

“We have serious talks with our kids,” Paul said. “What is happening?”

“He told me he was in love.”

“That’s great,” I said happy for the Roberto Junior out there somewhere.

“To a thirty-year old woman with a child,” he finished.

“Roberto, you love him no matter what, right?” Paul asked.

“That’s what I told him,” Robert said.

“Then that doesn’t make a difference.” Sometimes it’s scary how smart Paul is.

Later, after dinner, we sat on the concrete steps of El Centro where two local teams were playing basketball. I was cheering for the side with the purple uniforms and heckling the referees who were pretty loose when it came to calling  traveling. I was happy. My husband was starting to feel better. 20171018_215551836082366.jpg

“Lesley and Paul.” We looked up at Roberto smiling and standing behind us. “Time to go home. We have a big day tomorrow. 

Roberto rested his hand on Paul’s back for a moment as he helped him stand up. He patted him gently between the shoulder blades. It could have been a “you owe me for taking your wife shopping” pat, or “don’t go scaring us like that again,” pat, but I think, watching Roberto match

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us step for step to the car, it was a “thank you for being a kind friend” pat.

We spent our last full day with Roberto on a tour of a gold and silver market in Petalan, walking rows of an ancient pyramid and playing field, and eating bowls of local pezole soup. When someone hands you the salt shaker without you asking for it, he is a friend. Best Wishes, Roberto. We will think of you, the boys, your wife, and, of course, taxi 623 that always met us with a rush of kindness. It felt like home. 

Wedding Crasher Wimps

We were invited to crash a wedding this week. It was tempting. The guy sitting next to us on the plane leaned over and said, “Come on, it’s okay. Crash our wedding. My bride to be will be cool with it, I promise,” he grinned and held out his hand, “Cecil, really.”

He got up and went to the bathroom in the back in the plane. He stood in line. All over the plane heads popped up.

“Gramps!”

Hey, Dad!”

“Brother, Dude, I’m still hung over from last night,” a haggard-looking guy called.

“There is no way we can crash their wedding, Paul,” I said my eyebrows raised. Every single popping head was African-American.

“I guess we couldn’t fade into the background,” Paul said reluctantly.

Cecil was from Los Angeles and twenty-seven members of his family were on the plane. The bride had arrived in Zihuantanejo the night before.

“Google it,” Cecil said confidently. “Just say Texas billionaire, Zihuantanejo. It was cheaper than home. The bride,” he laughed, “picked it out. Gorgeous view, I guess. Bride happy, groom happy, you know?” He nudged Paul. Paul’s head bounced up and down.

Then a voice came out of the loud speaker, “Doctor or medic to the back, please.” Then it wasn’t just Cecil’s family who popped up out of their seats. We all did.

“Oh, God. My brother-in-law, no way, she’s going to kill me.” Cecil sat down and put his head on the tray table. “Please tell me it’s not a heart attack.”

I stood on my chair to see better. Paul scowled at me.

“Get down.”

“He’s okay, Dad,” a voice from the back called. “Medic guy said it was dehydration.”

“Thank you, Lord,” Cecil said. “I told him to stop the drinking last night.”

Over the next three hours we heard all about Cecil and his family. He had seven children and it was a second marriage.

“Two sets of twins,” he groaned. “what was God thinking?”

As he talked, Shonda popped up, her long braids, flying behind her. “Dad, we there yet?”

“Chemistry major,” Cecil sighed. “I thought she’d be the artsy type. Her twin brother,” he motioned to the handsome boy across the aisle about the age of our youngest son, “he’s majoring in music. Viola, I think. I’m not sure how it’s different than the violin, but I guess it is.” He reflected. “Don’t tell him I don’t know the difference. Probably important, you know?”

Paul and I were enchanted by this family that ebbed and flowed down the aisle. Cecil was the center—the anchor of the family.

“Seriously, guys,” Cecil said to us, “if you don’t feel comfortable at the wedding, come to the turtle release in Treconnes on Sunday night. I hear it is pretty special.”

“It is. You have no idea,” I said.

“Amazing,” Paul said.

When we landed in Zihuatanejo, Cecil’s family trooped off the plane carrying various musical  instruments. They waved to us as they filed by. A little girl, a grandchild, smiled shyly at us as Cecil tickled her stomach. Her head arched back showing great gaps between her teeth.

“Paul, I don’t want to crash the wedding. If you invited someone I didn’t know, you’d be a lonely man sleeping on a bumpy couch even if it was our honeymoon.”

Paul cocked his head. “Entirely possible.” I raised my eyebrows. “Likely?” He posed. I squeezed his knee.

“Okay, you don’t have to convince me,” Paul said. “I’d like to see Cecil again though. He’s a nice guy. Let’s plan on seeing them at the turtle release.”

Faker,’ I thought. ‘You are as in love with this family as I am.’

*********

Sunday came and Paul and I stood in the lobby of the hotel waiting for the tour. We knew from two years ago a van would pick us up and take us to the small town of Troconnes, thirty minutes away. The guide would face backwards while the driver drove and explain about the Olive Ridley turtle rescue program. When we arrived at the sanctuary, we would dig up a well of turtles, allow them to rest and gain their strength, and then release them at sunset.  In the meantime we would celebrate and play in the surf.

A taxi pulled up and man exited. He came forward he hand outstretched. “My name is Francisco! I am your tour guide!  You may call me Frank, which is American you know,” he shouted, “or call me Paco, my Mexican name.”

“Where is the big family?” I asked.

“Where are the bride and groom?” Paul inquired.

“Oh, they were too big a tour. Another guide took them to Manzillo. You need a private tour guide! Me, Frank or Paco, whatever you like!”

“Paul, I don’t want to go.”

“We paid already. We’re going.”

The entire drive to Troconnes Paco or Frank (take your pick) yelled over his shoulder at us as we passed lumbering trucks full of coconuts.

“They are pulled from the beach out of the way of predators and they incubate for 45 days. Half of them are male and the other half are female. It depends on the temperature, of course.”

“Of course,” I mouthed to Paul. I looked out the window.

After Paco parked the tiny taxi, Paul and I straggled to the enclosure and settled on the ground in front of a stake that had the number September 1 on it.  It was 45 days later, and deep in the sand, the turtles had hatched out of their eggs. We dug down into the damp hole and carefully pulled the tiny turtles to the surface. Paul’s hands were more gentle than mine. I scraped the side of the sand wall feeling for errant turtles that had gone sideways not straight up. 20171015_151034

“Seventy nine,” Paco crowed as if he had done any of it. “Come now and have your snack while we wait for sunset.” He walked ahead of us shaking his shoes with each sandy step.  He led us to the restaurant on the beach.

“Paul, it was supposed to be perfect. We were supposed to see Cecil and Shonda, and her brother who plays the viola,” I hissed. “Now we have Paco. What happened? Why didn’t we get the tour with them?” I hated Paco. I detested his memorized list of turtle facts. 20171015_151935

“They will return here ten years from now,” Paco announced. “Of course that is only 3% of them.”

“Of course,” I mouthed again. Paul laid his hand on my shoulder.

We sat at a table looking out at the waves while the turtles began to come alive in the buckets next to us. They raised their heads and looked around. Piled six deep, their flippers pounded against the sides of the plastic walls. Insistent, their little bodies scrambled, trying to climb the six inches out of the buckets. Their eyes blinked wet and black. 20171015_151057

“The tour includes a snack and two drinks. You may order now. Not margaritas, however. Beer or soda pop.”

“I’d like a margarita, please,” I announced as the waiter came over. The bucket of turtles continued humming next to us. I didn’t look at Paul.

“We release them at sunset,” Paco said, “so they can follow the road to the sun.” He beamed and bit into our quesadilla. I kicked Paul under the table.

I was shaking with anger. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to see Cecil and his children shout and laugh when the turtles began to run towards the water. I felt helpless.

A dog ran up to me begging for scraps of our tortillas. I kept my hands in my lap. Paul pointed  towards the dog while Paco continued to prattle about his expertise as a tour guide. I got up and left the table. I sat down on the sand.

“And, I take older retirees for three nights into the mountain towns to see the monarch butterflies,” he proclaimed.

The dog followed me and lowered himself to his front feet and raised his rear into the air. His tail wagged back and forth. His tongue panted and he pushed his nose into my hand. Suddenly, he tackled me and I cried out scared.   Paul stood up and looked at me. I waved him off. It was okay. 20171015_170055

I watched the dog who licked me with equal parts sand and dog drool. I longed for the easiness I have felt towards dogs my whole life. I reached out and stroked his head. He leaned into me. His weight was substantial and I leaned back. It wasn’t fair. It was supposed to be perfect.

********

Emmie was seven weeks old when she came to us. Solid black, short hair, and intelligent eyes, she was meant to replace our golden retriever of thirteen years. We were so happy. We were going to be the perfect puppy parents. We missed our old dog who had passed away, but this was our time to start over.

When she was little, Emmie was scrappy. She chased the cat, Lily. We plied her with mountains of toys and she snatched them from us when we teased her. Her little growl was cute. We taught her early to walk on the beach with us, but as she grew older she jumped on us her little teeth like needles. When we punished her, she jumped again and again. It didn’t matter what we did, she never backed down.

One day I was feeding her and, as I dropped the bowl to the ground, I reached to pet her. She turned and attacked me. She snarled and lunged for my hand grazing it with her teeth. I stood back against the wall and held my throbbing fingers.

We went through puppy classes, obedience training, even private lessons with a police dog trainer. But, nothing helped. By the time she was nine months old, we had her on a long leash in the house so when she snapped at us we were several feet away.

Paul loved Emmie. He walked her twice a day. Even though the trainer said to keep her on a tight leash at all times, he let her run on the beach off leash. It was the only time she was free. He loved watching her launch herself into the water after a ball. He believed she would be okay.

Each night Paul and I debated whose turn it was to put her in the kennel.  We had to take the leash off her, and because we had to reach into the kennel to unhook it, it was a tense transition for her and us.

“I’ll do it tonight,” Paul grabbed the leash and led her towards our bedroom.

The next sound I heard would change our lives, and in some ways, I don’t think we will ever get over it. I heard a deep growl and a cry of pain. I ran to our bedroom. There was a pool of blood next to the kennel and Emmie was standing inside. I followed the trail of red splotches into the bathroom where Paul sagged against the counter, his hand in a stream of water that flowed red and fast. His face was grey in shock and I could tell he was trying not to vomit. The bite was to the bone.

We had only one choice the next day. Paul took her to the vet even though I offered. That is an example of Paul’s character. If you know him, it makes sense. The hardest jobs are the ones he will do.

********

“It is time to release the turtles,” Paco beamed.

I fumed.

Paul and I carried our little buckets of turtles to the water’s edge. A Mexican family with a small boy who asked his mother why I talked funny came to join us. We tipped the buckets over and the turtles began spilling over the edges. They tumbled, one after another, and gained speed when the foaming water flew in to cover them. I sat with my new friend, the dog with the sandy drool, and watched the turtles spin their flippers towards the road to the sun.

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Ignoring Paco and his musings, I thought about Cecil, Shonda, her brother, the toothless grand daughter, and the bride we would never meet. I stroked the dog’s back and hoped their turtle experience was perfect—just like it was meant to be.

“I have another fact for you,” Paco said standing in front of me and blocking the sun. “Look there,” he pointed to the sand dune next to the turtle enclosure. “See those tracks? Those are the tracks of the turtles who escaped the pen before we could save them. They decided on their own when to go to the ocean.”

Under my hand the dog shook his coat and sand flew everywhere. I closed my eyes and felt his heart beating, steady and sure, through his body. He sighed and laid his head in my lap.

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The dozens of turtles we released continued on their journey to the water. They didn’t stop even when tossed by the frenzy of the churning water. Perhaps Emmie was one of the ones who decided her journey without waiting for the others. For her it was the perfect time; for us, it was the time we had to accept.

A Babe in a Bikini

20171014_1340341624548308.jpgPaul and I dropped in an exhausted heap today at the beach. We grabbed a couple of chairs under a palapa and ordered a bucket of Pacifico beer from a beachfront restaurant called Irma’s. The waves were pounding a few yards away, but I was restless. I hate just laying on a chair. I was ready to walk. Someone had to save the chairs and keep track of our things, so I nominated Paul. Eyes closed, he nodded.

“Is there anyone around?” I asked Paul. He nodded again. I yanked my dress over my head. I stepped out of my shoes. “I’ll be back.” Looking over my shoulder behind me, I slipped down to the waves and started walking.

I alternated between the sand and the waves looking for shells and sea glass. I wasn’t thinking—I was just cruising along. I peered into the tide pools looking for crabs or small lobster. Looking up, I saw Paul jogging along the sand directly towards me.

“I couldn’t see you,” he panted.

“I’m fine,” I smiled. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He huffed and caught his breath.

“There’s rocks and an undertow, and…’ he gulped. “You’re wearing a bikini.”

“This is not a bikini,” I corrected him. “This is a two-piece.”

“It’s a bikini.”

To me, a bikini is a tiny swim suit worn in 1979 by self-confident teenage girls on vacation. I remember their skin shimmering in the sun by the side of the pool with a sheen of Tropicana coconut oil coating their bodies. They laughed and tossed their Farrah Fawcet hair, leaning back on their elbows. That wasn’t me back then. I was too fat to wear a two-piece.

When I was in 4th grade, I went through puberty abruptly. I grew nine inches in a year and gained 30 pounds.  Overnight I had stretch marks on my stomach and hair under my arm pits. I went from being a confident girl who could turn cartwheels across a velvety-green lawn to an uncomfortable young woman who sat on the door step and watched other girls twirl across my yard.

It sucked.

There was only time I wore a two-piece bathing suit between 1979 and 2012. In 1987 my parents took us to Hawaii, and I pranced about in my blue and white Hawaiian two-piece. I had worked hard to get into that two-piece—Jane Fonda aerobics, the grapefruit diet…my dad didn’t tell me once I looked nice.

When my mom bought me new school clothes she had me put on a fashion show for my dad. I would traipse into the family room and pirouette in front of him. I remember him tilting his head just past me to look at the television.

I don’t mean to rag on my dad. He was proud of my sports ability, my grades, and my determination to accomplish my goals. I just wasn’t tiny enough for him.

He passed away in 2011.  I started the year wearing a size 14 and weighing a 170 pounds. At the end of the year I wore a size 2 and weighed 125 pounds. Yes, it’s because my dad died and no, it’s not. Everything came together—sometimes a perfect storm can mean everything you’ve always wanted happens at once. As amazing as I felt, I was also uncomfortable. The scent of the coconut oil lingered in the air. I didn’t think I’d ever wear it.

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In 2012, Paul and I went to Hawaii. I was strong from weightlifting and graceful from Zumba, and I ate healthy food. I was doing everything right. But, I couldn’t wear a two-piece. I felt naked, fat, and scared.

“Okay, you can take my picture,” I called to Paul when I put it on the two-piece on for the first time.

“Well, you are going to have to come out from behind the bush,” Paul said exasperated.

I was literally hiding behind a bush just above the beach. My white tummy showed the stretch marks of my childhood. They were silver-colored, and I was likely the only one who knew exactly where they were. My thighs were strong and muscular. My trainer just days before had sighed and said, “I would give anything for your calves.” Really? When I was younger I couldn’t fit them in boots.

So, when Paul ran down the beach towards me today, because I was wearing a “bikini” and he feared for my safety, I had to laugh. I am not as small as I was in 2012, but I am strong and confident. I could beat the crap out of any guy who tried to grab me while I was on the beach.

“Okay,” I told Paul. “I won’t hide behind a bush. I won’t wait until sunset. I won’t cover up with a towel. I’ll let you take my picture in my two-piece.”

“Bikini,” he said automatically.

So he did. He took the picture and I promised myself I would put it on my blog and not worry about what others would think of it.

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Then the true test came. There was a party of 40 people in Irma’s restaurant. They were toasting a guy’s 65th birthday.  I marched right through them all, wearing my BIKINI, and ordered two margaritas. Although it was thirty years ago when I last wore a bikini in a restaurant, I rocked it today. There was more than one frowning wife and quite a few men sneaking a quick look. After all, I am just fifty—a babe in a bikini in their eyes.

Greeting the Ghosts Who are Us

Paul and I are headed for Zihuatanejo, Mexico, the little beach town made famous in the movie (and book) Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne escapes from prison and says to his friend Red Redding, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Paul and I are busy living.

We traveled to the humble town of Zihuatanejo in 2015 and fell in love with it. We could go to the sleek high rise hotels of Ixtapa a few miles away, but there is something about Zihuatanejo that calls us back. We love it for its grubby, funny, sweet places and people. I hope, like last time, that as soon as our taxi leaves the highway and begins bumping along the pot-holed streets, the children in their school uniforms will run along next to us smiling and waving through the window.

20151124_091644The quaint, raspberry pink-hued hotel, Paseo de Morro, is our very own Grand Marigold Hotel from the movie by the same name. It clutches the rocks on the side of the cliff hanging over Zihuatanejo Bay. There are 166 steps from our hotel down the hill into town. A few times we started the margaritas earlier than was advisable and the climb back to the hotel was demoralizing. Paul got cranky and told me to quit counting the stairs—he couldn’t bear it. I cackled and shouted the numbers. 20151121_172254

I have prepared myself that the magic of “first times” will be fewer. However, I will go to the bay one dawn when the long and fast panga boats hurtle towards the familiar landmarks that welcome them home each sunrise. The fishermen who cast their nets by the light of the moon or by headlamps on moonless nights, slide onto the beach and push their bounty over the side of their boats. Fish, some still flopping, rain onto the sand and wait for the restaurants from the resort town to come and select the catch of the day. No matter how many times I see that flotilla heading for shore, I know my breath will catch in my throat just a little. 20151123_115104

We’re returning to the beach town called Troncones to volunteer with a turtle rescue organization. We’ll release protected and newly-hatched baby Ridley turtles. They struggle out of their shells and trundle towards the incoming surf which cartwheels them back to the sand again and again. Smaller than the palm of my hand, hundreds dash towards the water determined to make it under the waves. Last time we visited, we watched a mother turtle dig a hole and lay her eggs next to our dinner table where our bare feet were burrowed in the sand. It was my birthday, and I thanked the massive matriarch for providing a beautiful spectacle that will reside in my mother heart forever.

20151125_204348We are returning to Zihuatanejo in hopes that time has stood still in a few places and for some people, most notably our favorite restaurant, Bistro Del Mar, where four staff waited on us all at the same time (imagine four men pouring wine, pouring water, removing plates, and placing plates all simultaneously). We also look forward to the hotel staff at Paseo de Morro even if they did cluck like disapproving mother hens when we appeared at the top of the stairs tired, hot, and, let’s just say it—intoxicated. 20151125_172243.jpg

To return to where you have been, to be young where you were once younger, to expect the unexpected all the while knowing full well what to expect—it is a rather odd place to be in the universe.  If anything, those two ghosts of our past—the younger Paul and Lesley—better at least push us up the stairs or we won’t tell them how much more wonderful their lives get in the future.

Paul and I Weren’t Ready

We arrived in Johannesberg directly from Ngala. Poor J-burg. It never stood a chance. By the time we got to the hotel, I was so weepy, it was like leaving for college and mistakenly thinking I was never going home. It was dark and we were hungry. We were stepping out the door to find dinner and one of the porters said,

“We can’t allow you to do that.” We looked at him confused.

“What?”

“J-burg is very dangerous and it is almost a certainty your phones will be stolen.”

We ate dinner that night in the employee cafeteria. I really cried then. We returned to our room and I looked at all of the tourist excursions offered in the city. They offered private cars with private tour guides. No way. I called down to the front desk and asked them to book us a bicycle tour in Soweto, one of the powder keg locations of student resistance in the battle  against apartheid. I wanted to see it. I was determined. Paul decided to stay mum. Maybe he should have spoken up. I’m not going to lie. It was a tough day.

A car arrived the next morning to pick us up. One of the staff members came outside and took a picture of our license plate.

“In case you go missing, Mr. Klenk.”

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Soweto was not like I imagined. It was huge. Hundreds of van taxis drove incredibly fast on narrow city streets. Benalia, a twenty-something go -getter, was our tour guide. He jumped curbs and rode without hands while Paul and I wobbled around on our bikes, weaving back and forth next to the traffic, and up hills that never seemed to go downhill. He gave our tour shouting over his shoulder. We didn’t hear a word he said. We were just trying to survive.

The Hector Piterson museum, however was beautifully done. In 1976, the South African government passed a law saying that all black children living in townships would be forced to abandon English and their tribal language and instead speak and read in Afrikaan–the language of the oppressor.  Forcing black South African children to speak Afrikaan would essentially render them voiceless. Thirty children, many just twelve and thirteen years old, gathered outside their school, Phefeni Junior Secondary School, and began singing a traditional Sotho anthem. Police fired on them and Hector was one of the first children killed. The iconic picture of Mbuyisa Makubo carrying Hector while Hector’s 15-year old sister ran alongside became one of the images of apartheid the world could no longer ignore.

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Benalia told the story of his township, his predecessors, and his future with such conviction, I almost believed I could ride that bicycle to the end of the day. Thankfully, he recognized our struggle and called back to the office to pick us up. We spent one more hour in Soweto—I asked to see a school where students were working on computers and practicing their spelling and math. We met seven little students. The girls shyly spoke Zulu to one another while the young boys boasted about their skills while speaking English. Side by side, Zulu and English, Hector and Benalia, Soweto believes in the impossible while making it happen.

Elijah’s Leopard

Elijah picked us up at the airport when we landed in Hoedspruit. We were on our way to Ngala Safari Lodge. I quivered with excitement. It was an hour-long ride and I hovered over his shoulder talking non-stop. I asked him,

“What was the dumbest question a guest has ever asked you?” Elijah was silent for two beats longer than I expected. “I will have to think about that question, Mrs. Klenk. I will tell you when I know.”

My new friendship with Elijah was an unexpected bonus to Paul. Thankful someone else had to listen to me prattle, his head lolled on the back of his seat and his snores were embarrassing.  He missed the warthogs and giraffe I saw by the side of the road, and he did not believe me when I told him there was elephant poop as large as a Thanksgiving turkey and an antelope the size of poodle—one of the miniature ones.

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Poor Elijah. by the end of our stay in Ngala, not only did he have a question for me, he had an entire story by which he could have lost his job and we could have been kicked out of the lodge. But for the kindness of Mamma Connie—and mostly the Black Dame—we were forgiven.

I want to be totally up front with this story. It was Paul’s fault. From the beginning, the middle, and all the way to the end, it was Paul’s enthusiasm that got us in a serious pickle.

I had read in some of the safari materials that guests could visit a local community, talk to teachers and students, and listen to a talk about a compassion care clinic. Sign me up. That’s right down my alley. I dressed carefully, covering my legs with a long skirt in case there were local beliefs that women should dress conservatively. The only problem was that it was hot.

“Elijah, can I open the window?”

Elijah was our driver for the afternoon. The car was a late-model SUV—very comfortable. The body of the car was gleaming from a recent washing and even the tires were scrubbed free of mud. The kitchen staff had made lunches for all of us and thoughtfully remembered extra water bottles for when we walked in the community under the strong sun.

“Yes, Mrs. Klenk. I will also make the air colder.”

“Elijah,” Paul said leaning forward into the front seat, “have you seen the Big 5?”

“Mr. Klenk, I have not. I have only been here two months and I have not been on safari. I have just the leopard left. I have seen the others, even the lion, near the lodge.” Elijah spoke carefully and there were times his speech was so formal it made me smile.

This is where we went wildly off track—or others may call it, gone rogue.

“I know where a leopard is,” Paul said. My husband had memorized the roads on the reserve and he recognized we were close to the location where we had encountered a leopard that morning. We were driving on the road that skirted the edge of the reserve property. The safari roads were just on the other side of a stand of brush that grew haphazardly like an inconsequential fence—more bluster than real. Elijah’s foot hesitated over the brake. He looked at us in the rear view mirror. We looked innocently back. That is how Paul and I get in trouble. It always seems like a good idea.

“Elijah, don’t worry. She is very close to here. She is in a tree. Paul pointed through the open window past my hair blowing in the hot wind. “Turn here. It will be just a small detour. I promise.” I wondered if Elijah knew the English word “detour.” It was kind of an old-fashioned term. Elijah slowed the vehicle to a crawl and looked a bit concerned when Paul pointed to a small opening in the brush. He turned slowly.

“Good, yes, Elijah. I know exactly where she is. Allyn and the other guides call her the Black Dame.” Elijah brought the car to a halt. He stared at us in the mirror.

“Yes, I know of the Black Dame. I have heard of her. I think it is best that we turn around now. This is not a safari vehicle. It should not be here on these roads.”

“Elijah,” Paul wheedled (yes, he did wheedle), “see that tree up there? You can see her tail hanging down. Just pull onto that path and you will see her.” Paul spoke with confidence. “You will have the Big 5, Elijah. Just two months here and you will already have the Big 5. I’m impressed.”

Elijah edged forward and pulled up next to the tree where the Black Dame was sleeping. Her large, muscled body rippled as she turned and raised her head. She opened her beautiful Cleopatra eyes and sat up. She yawned. Her mouth was huge. Her teeth were daggers. In that moment I realized she was a serious predator. I probably weighed more than an impala, but I think she could take me if she put her mind to it.

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“I think we should leave, Elijah,” I said. I started to close my window. Paul grabbed my fingers and the glass paused.

“Just a minute.” He leaned across my lap and stuck his head out the window. The big cat tensed and stared down at us. Both Elijah and I struggled to close the window. I grabbed Paul’s head and hauled him back in the car. The Black Dame’s front claws extended onto the branch she was sitting on. Her haunches were in the air. Elijah put the car in reverse and we took off out of the clearing like we were in a safari vehicle. The dust rose around us and I thought of the wasted washing the car had received.

“We are going to the community now. We are only going to that location. We will stay on this road.” Elijah’s arms were straight like he was trying to push the steering wheel away from him. He wiped his brow.

“Elijah, I am so sorry. We didn’t realize she would wake up.” I tried to be conciliatory, but what I really felt was tremendous guilt. “We will tell Mamma Connie what happened.”

“It’s okay, Elijah. I will tell her it was all my idea. That I made you do it.” Paul was serious.

Elijah was silent. The inside of the car was freezing.

“You tell Mamma Connie what happened and then I will talk to her when she comes to speak to me,” he said.

“Could you lose your job?” Paul asked. Elijah didn’t speak.

“Will Mamma Connie make us leave Ngala?” I asked. Elijah didn’t speak.

“This is all your fault, Paul. For once I am not to blame. You had to pretend you were a safari guide and now we are all in trouble.” I shivered. It was cold in the car.

Paul didn’t speak.

On the way home from the community we assured Elijah that everything would be okay. We would talk to Allyn. Mamma Connie loved Allyn. Everything would be fine.

Then we turned the corner and two huge elephants were standing in the road. They were so close I could see their eye lashes. Paul and I didn’t hesitate. We both rolled our windows down to look at the elephants eye to eye.

“Mr. and Mrs. Klenk. It is time to go to the lodge. The windows must remain up. We will not stop again.” Elijah looked at us in the rear view mirror and we looked down in shame.

At the end of the week, Elijah drove us back to the airport. Since Mamma Connie had forgiven us, our little safari adventure was now funny.

“Mrs. Klenk, I have thought about your question since you have arrived. I have an answer. Everyone asks me who my partner is because all the other staff have partners (people they work with). I do not have a partner, but I have seen the Big 5.”

I burst into laughter. I hugged his shoulder.

“Elijah, give me your email address and I will send you the article about our trip to see the Black Dame.”

I wish I was there to see his eyes crinkle. He has been there more than two months now. I bet he has a partner and I am sure he has been on safari.

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Full disclosure: I might have exaggerated a tiny bit about the Black Dame’s interest in us when we were in the car. Okay. Maybe. Also, Paul swears I did not have to “haul his head in the window.” Well, that’s still under debate. The most important part was that Elijah was a brave driver–especially because he had no idea how much trouble the Klenks get into on a regular basis. THANK YOU, ELIJAH.