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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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Travel

8 Days: Brown’s Ole Opry

fullsizerender-11 In a little barn at the end of Timbermill Road, the world becomes a very good place on Friday nights. It’s cold outside- there’s a chance of freezing rain-  but inside the room is the kind of warmth that defies a mid- winter cold snap. The room bears none of the decorations which have come to symbolize “Christmas” in our contemporary society. No Christmas tree, no dangling strings of Christmas lights, no mistletoe as far as I can tell. Instead, you can recognize that it’s Christmastime in this particular segment of the South by the array of festive holiday sweaters adorning the womenfolk and a very tall man wearing a Santa hat and white shoes with heel taps.

The place is called Brown’s Ole Opry. Located in the small town of McCleansville, a 15 minute drive but a lifetime away from our home in downtown Greensboro, Brown’s Ole Opry is found at the end of a small side road flanked by tobacco barns and modular homes.

We are greeted by smiles and hellos from several dozen “regulars”. Tonight my co-worker and good friend, Dick Franks, is playing guitar on stage with a group of pick- up musicians, as is his monthly gig. Dick is one of those people with a keen mind, quick wit and an eternally youthful outlook that makes him seem younger than most people half his age, which I won’t repeat on account that he’s my boss. When he sees us walking in, Dick gives us a quick nod without missing a beat. I see another of my co-workers, Pat Robinson, here to support Dick, as well. Pat is perched on the bench seat lining the wall on the other side of the room. When she spots me, she hollers, above the din of guitar, banjo and fiddle, “Well, there’s Su-san!” Pat is one of the few people I know who is louder than me, a surprising statistic considering the fact that she is barely 5 feet tall with feet the size of a ten year old. Tonight, Pat has her sassy on and I comment on the serious biker’s jacket that covers her petite frame.

The band sounds really good- there’ s maybe 6 or 8 musicians- in fine form, jamming on-stage. Mounted to the rafters above their heads is a large framed American flag and a series of large, mismatched photographs standing guard over the assembly. The photographs, I learn, are the now deceased brothers and sisters of the proprietor, Mr. Brown, who at 94 years old is seated in his usual seat on the back row. From this vantage point he can enjoy the comings and goings of his lively guests by either shaking your hand or giving the ladies a peck on the cheek as they walk by.

When I ask Mr. Brown how many years he has been doing this, his answer is simply, “a long, long time.” Some of the other folks tell me this has been going on for more than 40 years. Used to be, this venue operated both Friday and Saturday nights, where numerous bands would set up both inside the barn and out buildings, where musicians spilled out onto the grassy knoll with a view to a large pond in back. These days, it’s just a Friday night venue. I could joke how one night a week is all these folks (most of them a certain age) could handle but that would be a flat out lie. The truth is that most any of them have more energy than you or me.

Over the course of coming here, 3-4 times since last summer, I’ve learned the names and the faces of a few of the “regulars”. There is a spirited redhead, a lady named Diane who has been kind enough to try to teach me to “flat foot”, a dance my mama used to do. I will admit “flat-footing” didn’t look like much of a dance when I watched mama doing it, but seems much more difficult when I am the one trying to do it. If feet could get tongue-tied, that’s what happens to me; I shuffle my feet a few beats before I think too hard, trip up and have to start over again. I love it that nobody here cares whether or not I can dance very well. One of the ladies pats me on the hand and says, “Honey, at least you are having a good time!” Diane moves across the floor effortlessly, all smooth and easy. She is a favorite dance partner with the menfolk and I love watching her interact with them, smiling, animated and attentive.

Pat and I strike up a conversation with a smartly- dressed lady wearing a leopard- skin top, long gold necklace and an expensive pair of shoes she says she bought from Arthur’s Shoe Store here in Greensboro. After we make our introductions, the lady- whose name is Tiny-  explains, almost apologetically, that she used to be “tiny” but now she is not. Tiny says she likes shopping for nice shoes and clothes since her husband died several years back. Now, she says, she simply buys whatever she wants. We also admire her large beautiful ring, which she says is a fake. Her beautiful “real” jewelry, she says, was stolen a while back when she was out-of-town by a contractor working on her house.

Since my contact at the Greensboro News & Record had just spoke with me earlier that day to say she would be featuring one of my Christmas stories in the newspaper the following week, I shamelessly inquire with Tiny if she reads the local newspaper. Tiny explained that she reads the Obituary Section every day to see if her former boyfriend had crossed the river.

Something tells me that she’s hoping his ship will sail sooner than later…

There’s a man Perry and I call “Happy Feet” whose dance moves most closely resemble the little penguin of the same name. Happy Feet flaps his arms and stomps his feet, jumps straight up and then over and generally commands the show. Most people would have a heart attack just attempting these moves.

Pat, in her biker jacket, has attracted the attention of another of the “regulars’ in the crowd. When she returns from a waltz, she tells me that he dances somewhere or another almost every night of the week. I imagine this man is somewhere in his seventh decade, but he smiles as he says plainly, “I feel sixteen.”

I don’t know it at the time but Perry is planning to ask me to dance. His plans are thwarted, however by a rival in the group. Vernon is in his 80’s but he beats Perry to the punch and wheels me out on the floor and instructs me how to follow him three beats to the measure. I step on his foot a few times but he doesn’t seem to mind. We laugh and talk and before you know it, I forget to care at all about what my feet are doing. It’s all about having a good time here on Friday nights at Brown’s Ole Opry.

 

BIG LOVE

big heart Out of the blue, my friend Mr. Edmund would ask “Susan, what is this thing called love?” He was 93 years old at the time, which was still very young for him as opposed to some folks who are dry and crumbled at 40. His question alluded to a song made famous by Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter. Even after so many years of friendship, I knew his query was primarily rhetorical and one that he liked to answer himself. “It’s a mystery!” he said brightly and indeed, even after his passing, it still is.

I have a pretty bouquet of roses on the table from my sweetie and a belly full of chocolates. I made Perry his favorite cake Sunday night and showered my kids with Starbuck’s coupons. Both Valentine’s Day and my friend Mr. Edmund have come and gone while I am left pondering  “what is this thing called love?”

I recently told a friend a story about Perry’s and my honeymoon. It was 1985 and we travelled from North Carolina to Maine and Cape Cod, two fresh-faced little college kids who dared go where not many Southerners had gone before us- across the Mason Dixon line. After two weeks on the road we were broke and homesick and stopped for a night’s stay at a little motel on the New Jersey Turnpike. The place was one step above a truck stop, hell it may have been a truck stop for all I knew, and I remember the woman at the registration desk looked scary with her frizzy bleached blonde hair. The cloud of smoke that surrounded her did not look like a halo. Our room had a broken window and some plumbing problems. I shored up the door with a chair; I’m still not sure it wasn’t a front for a brothel.

It turned out that our questionable surroundings were not our biggest problem. It was time for dinner and Perry suggested we go to McDonalds. We’d only been married just a few short weeks and I didn’t want to burst his bubble but the truth was I’d never been a fan of McDonalds in the first place. We’d eaten at McDonalds with increasing incident due to our decreasing funds and I was sick of it. I simply could not stomach another Big Mac. Now, I’m not a person prone to hissy fits or at least I wasn’t then but for reasons unbeknownst to me, I threw my husband down on the bed and began screaming dramatically “I am NOT going to McDonalds. I HATE it! I HATE McDonalds!.” I still recall the look of surprise on his face and my clenched fists.

After that, we didn’t go to a McDonalds for a very long time…

It’s been nearly thirty two years since that day and in that time, my husband and I have weathered our share of ups and downs over things much more challenging than a hamburger. We’ve spent our fair share of time being both the bug and the windshield. These experiences have taught me that love is not for sissies and that it requires a generous dose of patience. You learn that even when you know someone for most of your life, there are always new things to discover about them. Most of those things you will find endearing but there are the occasional things that will drive you as crazy and unmercilessly as a dripping faucet. I’ve learned that for love to last it needs plenty of space to breathe in and how laughter can be the saving grace that stops you from killing the person who seems put on this earth just to drive you ape-shit, particularly if hormones are involved on one or the other’s part.

During those early years of our relationship, I remember how our love- just like life itself- seemed simple. Over time, it became as weighted down as that mattress in the truck stop and more complex with a growing family, mortgages, careers and the things that hurt us that can be hard to forget, even when they’ve been forgiven.

We travelled a long way from home in those early years but we have come further today than I would have ever imagined. Love changes a lot over time as it trades in the sharp corners of its youth for something more rounded and flexible and less prone to breakage over something as simple as a piece of charbroiled meat on a white bun.

Love on the other side never fails to amaze me at it’s vastness, how it comes to permeate your home and your closet and your outlook on life. How it scatters on the floor like the toenail clippings I know my husband did not vacuum up last week and how it spreads out your front door and into the neighborhoods and lives of your friends and co-workers. How it’s like travelling on a trip where you need one person to drive and another to read the road map.

Steel Mags

magnolia   For years, we kept in touch through Christmas cards. Those were the years when life cruised by slowly enough. We scribbled our own handwritten notes inside and included the occasional photograph. We lived secure in the cocoons of our mostly untested faith, smug that our lives were on some straight, invisible track. It seemed easy then to have faith, because hadn’t our lives turned out so “fair?” Family photos showed us as attractive young women in our prime, radiant with good health, flanked by the innocent faces of our precious children and our still, supportive husbands.

Our children grew up. We moved to bigger houses and advanced in our careers. In a blink, 20 years passed. Enough time for illness to strike, for marriages to dissolve, for families to be broken, for hope to be lost. We didn’t know it then, but individually, a kind of had shame had set in. Our lives were not what they appeared. No one’s dreams had come true and stayed. We wondered, each of us from our comfortable middle class homes with plenty of food in the refrigerator and a lady who cleaned for us every few weeks, what had gone wrong and if maybe (our secret shame) it wasn’t our own fault?

Two summers ago, we reunited for our first girl’s weekend in historic Charleston. During those few precious days, we discovered that in friendship time, 20 years pass like nothin’. I looked into those faces I once knew as well as my own, faces with whom I’d shared countless sleepovers, teenaged pranks, broken hearts and midnight snacks. We confided about the challenges and humiliations we had privately (and sometimes publically) faced during those years without each other’s knowing. We gave thanks to God for dreaming bigger dreams for us than we could have ever dreamed ourselves and for giving us the strength to go on. We deemed ourselves “Steel Magnolias”, an ode to our “Southern-ness” and our ability to persevere.

That weekend, we remembered how to be silly again. God, how I’d forgotten to be silly! We splashed in fountains, made mischief, sang, danced and closed that bar down! We meandered along Charleston’s magnificent cobblestone streets, beneath fringed canopies of Spanish moss. We peeked through wrought iron gates into private courtyards, intoxicated by scents of Confederate Jasmine, boxwood and oleander. On the way to their wedding, an elegant couple passed us in a white horse-drawn carriage. Clip clop, clip clop… They were so beautiful and the moment held such hope and promise. Spontaneously, we burst into an a cappella version of “Goin’ to the Chapel.”The couple laughed and clapped in delight.

Can you believe, they invited us to their reception???

Oh, and we went skinny dippin’… (Shhhhh, yes again!) Fifty year old bare asses shiny and wrinkled like newborns. Breasts floating on water like jellyfish in the moonlight.

“Oh puh-leaze, don’t let me lose my clothes!!!” And laughter. Always laughter, even with the tears.

Before heading home, we took a final walk along those pristine streets and happened across a patch of freshly poured concrete in the sidewalk. Who cared if someone else had already written on it? I smoothed away that writing as best as I could with a Kleenex and wrote with a stick…

“S-T-E-E-L  M-A-G-S”, because there just wasn’t room for magnolias!

Steel mags       A more appropriate name, I suppose, for girls (I mean women) who skinny dip in the moonlight and crash other people’s weddings.

In a friendship spanning nearly forty years, we stand as the guardians of each other’s innocence and protect that fragile girliness that is too easily lost in this world. Today, we are disproportionately the same as we were then, Older, but wiser. Beautiful, but not young.

Time has taught us not to judge. We rediscovered the beauty of friendship. We view each other’s skewed lives and tragic missteps with the compassion given to a baby bird fallen out of a nest. We lift each other up with a grace and tenderness that can be difficult to bestow on ourselves. Later, we will head back to our separate lives. Before departing, we pause to take refuge from the sweltering heat for a brief libation in one of the city’s swanky hotels. From the rooftop garden, we grasp the stems of our champagne flutes and raise them high, bubbles dancing to the top like laughter. “To the Steel Magnolias!” we say in unison, then someone giggles and we correct ourselves.

“To the Mags!”  The Steel Mags

This re-post is dedicated to my Aunt Betty Jo, who is hospitalized and very ill. She is the original “Steel Magnolia”. There will never be another. I love you Aunt BJ! xxooxxoo  

Quicksand

Tarzan   As a kid I remember watching the old Tarzan television show. Every Sunday night, the five or six year old me sat on the floor in front of my family’s black and white television set (complete with “rabbit ears” of course) eating a big bowl of popcorn entranced by each episode. Muscles bulging, the broad chested Tarzan would swing through the canopy of the jungle shouting his signature “AH-aha-ha-AH-ahaaa…” It reveals much about the real me to say I could have cared less about is muscles and loin cloth, but I was enamored with the exotic setting, the wildlife and the possibility of swinging on a vine.

Of Tarzan’s many adventures, I was fascinated by the ones involving quicksand. To my knowledge, there was nothing like that surrounding the red clay dirt of our family home on Goat Pasture Road. Since I watched every episode, I felt a bit like an expert on the subject of quicksand. I knew that the more you struggled in the quicksand, the faster it pulled you under. Quicksand could devour a grown man in seconds or a grown woman more slowly, particularly if she were beautiful and helpless, screaming at the top of her lungs to be rescued moments before her head went under.

I have learned through my post-travel research that quicksand  does indeed exist in certain parts of Africa near wetlands where the upper surface dries out and the lower ones become water-logged and unstable. I was reminded of quicksand in central Tanzania. Our group was staying in a beautiful tented camp across from the Tarangire National Park, perched on a knoll overlooking Lake Barunga. This picturesque round lake sits like a shining jewel mocking the poverty and dust of Africa; it’s saline waters are too harsh to sustain much life except for flamingos and an assortment seabirds.

One hot afternoon, our group hiked from our campsite through the scrubby undergrowth, down the hillside and onto the wide sandy beach. Silhouetted against the distant hills, we could see several young Masaii natives herding a large flock of goats. The goats jostled about noisily. We met them a short ways up the beach juxtaposing ourselves in their midst for photographs, the goats  scattering around us like water pouring through a sieve.

Masaii shepherds with their flocks along the shore of Lake Barunga.
Masaii shepherds with their flocks along the shore of Lake Barunga.

Flamingos and seabirds at the water's edge.
Flamingos and seabirds at the water’s edge.

As usual, I was traipsing around on the periphery of the group, doing my own thing exploring every piece of driftwood and inching closer to the seabirds for photo ops. While everyone else was diligently listening to the guide give his nature talk, I stepped onto an unstable area of the beach and immediately found myself up to my calf in wet sand. I was afraid to go closer to the water to wash it off. While it was more of an embarrassment and not a real threat to my safety, I scurried back to the group sheepishly who couldn’t help but notice my mucky shoe and leg. I was often getting into some kind of “trouble” and a few members began to tease me about my near immersion.

Ugh oh...
Ugh oh…

I was recalling that experience the other day and it triggered my thoughts about how easy it is to look out over the landscape of our lives, oblivious to the perils that lie just beneath the placid surface. We live so much of our lives in blissful denial until loss or sickness or tragedy strikes us, yanks us beneath the surface and we find ourselves fighting our way back up for light and air.

In times like this, I am reminded to simply be calm and present. The scripture says “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. I find a lot of power in those words. I know God but it is the “being still” that I have problems  with. Worry is like quicksand and our frenetic actions only serve to take us under deeper.I try to be conscious of my circle of influence, which is really very small. My ability to differentiate  between what is within the realms of my control and what is not helps me feel more at peace.

How about you? What helps you when you feel life is dragging you under?

Allegorie de Soie

Located at the base of the mountain, Aguas  Calienetes is the
Located at the base of the mountain, Aguas Calientes is the “jumping off point” for visitors to Machu Picchu.

I rise before dawn and dress in the near dark. I grope the walls for the light switch above the sink basin. The bare bulb flickers awake and I quickly brush my teeth with bottled water. The bus is waiting.

The air outside is heavy and damp. Except for a handful of local outfitters and tourists who stumble towards the bus clutching coffee and backpacks, the outpost is still asleep. Seedy bars and overpriced restaurants sit idle and dark; souvenir stands cower under blankets of plastic. Wedged on a sliver of land between the roaring Urubamba River and the longest mountain range in the world, Aguas Calientes seems less like a town than a few forgotten crumbs lining the pocket of the giant Andes.

The movement of the bus jolts me awake. I am one week and three thousand miles from home in the jungle of Machu Picchu. My husband was so furious about my leaving that he barely spoke to me in the days leading up to my departure. He gave a lame excuse for not driving me to the airport to which I countered that since I could get myself to South America, I most assuredly could get myself to a plane. My departure was icy. Was it too much to ask him to understand that I was drawn to this place like water to a divining rod? There is risk in all travel but I was well-prepared for the trip. I was troubled and disappointed that after nearly thirty years of marriage, my husband and I were unable to simply agree to disagree.

After our plane landed in Lima, it took nearly a week to acclimate to the altitude and travel by bus and train to reach the jumping off point at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. We spent the afternoon exploring and hiking the ruins. The beauty was breath-taking. I snapped hundreds of photos but none captured the spiritual essence that draws over three millions visitors to this remote area of Peru.

Today’s outing, however, seems not so promising. The sky is a low grey ceiling; driblets of water trace the window glass. High above the main site, two massive stones mark the Inti Punku or Sun Gate. Researchers believe it to be the original main entry to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail. On rare mornings when the mountain is not shrouded in cloud cover, the sun rises directly between them.

The bus drops us off near the gate and we begin winding ourselves up and around the side of the mountain. A few hikers turn back, uncomfortable with the narrowness of the trail. Alone and unafraid, I move steadily in silence, holding close to the mountainside. The clouds occasionally thin into wisps of cotton candy. I glimpse the sky; we have missed the sunrise.

At the summit, our guide Fernando sits perched like a spider across a boulder. He is mysteriously suspended in mid-air, supported by clouds. Lanky and handsome, he looks more Spanish than Kechuan. He has a surprising mouthful of silver braces and habitually lowers his head self-consciously. Chuckling to myself, I greet him by name. As a child of the ‘80’s, “Fernando” reminds me of the Abba song. I mentally hum a few bars but I can only recall the words to the chorus. I pull my water bottle and some nuts from my backpack and sit down beside him.

“You speak English very well” I say. His shy smile says he is pleased by my compliment. He tells me how he grew up about fifty miles away in the original Incan capitol of Cuzco. A few summers back, he travelled to New York. He loved the US and hopes to return when he has saved enough money.

At the mention of home, I feel myself tense.

Like a door that has been left open, I am suddenly aware of a hollow, nearly imperceptible hole in myself. I am chilled; the wind seems to blow right through me. Fernando thanks me, straightens his limbs and with a word of caution, disappears back down the trail. What had happened? Had Fernando sensed it too? Breathing in the vapors, I stare into the milky abyss, willing myself to remember this place, this moment.

I discover along my descent that the jungle has come alive in my absence. Slithering vines snake upwards while orchids languish like jewels on emerald silk, glistening from the previous night’s rain. Trills from tropical birds pierce the space high above my head and a glint of color flashes in my peripheral vision. I stop, peer up and then down the side of the mountain, yet see nothing but clouds. Further down the trail, the apparition reappears, hovering like an orb. Small and transparent as cellophane, its color shifts from yellow to pink to lavender. I try to photograph it but the camera lens moves in and out as if there is nothing there. I rub my eyes and look again, but it is gone.

Am I imagining things?

Suddenly, there is a break in the clouds. For a few moments, the magnificence of Machu Picchu spreads like a postcard below me. Mountains guard the site like moss covered sentries. Clouds swirl and dance, snagging themselves on distant peaks and wrestling the sunlight in a war of dark blue and purple. Stone walls and terraces lay cast upon the earth like a toddler’s forgotten puzzles. I am utterly spellbound.

I greet Fernando at the trail’s end and recount to him my experience. His face lights up as he explains “There are many butterflies in the Amazon called Morpho Butterflies. They seem to change colors when they fly!”

A week later I have returned back home. Like the maps and souvenir rocks and coins I brought home, my recollection of the mysterious butterfly becomes lost among the numerous memories of my journey. I sleep in my comfortable bed and drink fresh water, yet I am filled with discontent. Everything is moving too fast. On nights I cannot sleep, I walk into my backyard. I am transported back to my time in Peru. I gaze up to see the same sky that had held me pinned to those mountaintops. Now I feel weighted down by earth.

Years later, I begin searching for the creature I saw fluttering in and out of those clouds. While there are hundreds of species of butterflies in the Amazon, none seemed to look like the image I remembered. Only recently, I discovered what I believe I saw: The Mother of Pearl Morpho Butterfly. It is described as “the most iridescent of all butterflies.”

I was surprised to find this butterfly prominently featured in the Salvador Dali painting, Allegorie de Soie or Allegory of Silk. This work features disjointed images of an egg, a woman clad in elegant silk attire and several butterflies including the Pearl Morpho. The images are superimposed on a background whose shadows and lines give the feeling of time passing.  I interpret the piece as a  statement of transformation: the cocoon into the butterfly, the butterfly into the woman and then the woman back into the butterfly. Not shown, is the cracking of that egg, the unrest, the messy, chipping away of the old which is the untidy forebearer of all transformation.

“Change” is not particularly pretty nor is it easy.

Pearl Morpho Butterfly
Pearl Morpho Butterfly

It is disconcerting when we realize we are living a life that no longer fits. I believe it is human nature to want to keep that which we hold dear in those safe familiar places and yet, it is a manifestation of the spiritual and our trust in the divine that gives courage and leads us down unforged roads into unfamiliar territory. We are not born to be stagnant. It was in the unfamiliar that I began my own transformation. In middle age, I am attuned to the sound of my own heartbeat and in the listening, I become alive.

Salvador Dali's painting, Allegorie de Soie.
Salvador Dali’s painting, Allegorie de Soie.

Happy Birthday, Mama Afrika

“Excuse me? How does one celebrate a birthday in Africa?”

Toasted almond eyes smiled at me from behind the sales counter. The girl was the color of coffee with a single drop of cream. Curls cascaded in ringlets around her broad forehead. Her name tag said “Hosanna”.

“How perfect”, I thought.

“We are traveling on safari tomorrow morning to Serengeti with Zablon Sunday’s group.” I explained. “One of my travel mates will be celebrating her birthday while we are there. I’d like to know if you have any suggestions for how we might celebrate her birthday. I believe she turns 73.”

The girl’s expression remained unchanged. Whether she was processing my words, a strange gibberish of simultaneous rapid-fire slow-syllabled Southern drawl or was simply contemplating the answer, I was not sure. I have a terrible habit, a tendency to fill in any silences in a conversation with mindless chatter; it’s a trait I share with my sister. “She is such a nice lady.” I continued. “Well, I really don’t know her that well, but she is soo-oo-o interesting. She is a writer, a journalist actually named Sonya. She was a war correspondent in Poland during the Communist uprising, back when there were hardly any women doing that job. She’s traveling single with two friends from the states.”

I had to pause to breathe sometime…

“You could have a birthday cake, maybe some champagne. Your guide can arrange it for you, ” the girl interjected.

“Gee, that is exactly how we would celebrate it in the US. Can you think of something that is more… ugh African?”

“Ah!”, she brightened. “You could do Mama Afrika.”

I didn’t know what she meant and said as much, but I was definitely intrigued.

“You get some fabric and wrap it around your head like a scarf, ” she explained. “Wrap it around your waist for a skirt and around your shoulders. Oh, and you could dance!” The staff at the lodge where we were staying and where Hosanna worked was always trying to get us to stay up and dance with them after dinner. We never did; we were too tired.

Mama Afrika! I liked this idea but where could I find an African wardrobe before we left for Serengeti the next morning? So far, I had not seen a single Wal-Mart or Joanne’s Fabrics since arriving in Africa. Hosanna offered to bring me her tribe’s fabrics; she would even bring them by my room the next morning and show me how to wear them.

Hosanna appeared promptly at 7 AM with three fabrics, none of which seemed to match. In Africa, there seems to be no rules about mixing patterns or colors. She wound me up like a spool, round and round from head to waist. I looked in the mirror at her completed creation. I looked like a colorful chicken, nothing like the elegant African ladies who strolled the villages.

My sister giggled.

The next few days were busy with our travel cross-country to and subsequent set-up at Serengeti. Safaris, hot air balloon rides, learning to live in a tent. I was thankful to be sharing my tent with my sister; several others like Sonya slept alone. Sonya was deathly afraid of encountering a Black Mamba and we teased her about it mercilessly. At the time, I must admit I had no idea the second most venomous snake in the world was the Black Mamba and that it made its home in our new back yard. Capable of moving at very high speeds, its bite can kill a human being in as little as twenty minutes.

P1000892
No one suspects a nice southern girl to be theif!

As Sonya’s birthday drew near, I realized the drive into Serengeti had been so thrilling, I had completely forgot to remind Zablon to get champagne. Fortunately, I was able to embezzle a bottle from the champagne breakfast that followed our balloon ride. My sister and I befriended two nice couples from Colombia. When they heard about Sonya’s upcoming birthday celebration and how I had procured her authentic African garb, they became our accomplices by helping me smuggle an unopened bottle off the table and into my jacket. They even insisted on taking a picture of it!

Sonya’s birthday came off in true Africa style, which means it was perfect but not quite as planned. Zablon had mistakenly told the chef her birthday was one day early. Since having the scent of a freshly baked  cake and a delicious dinner wafting around the tent was a likely invitation to have our food stolen by the baboons, we celebrated her birthday the first time with a dinner, birthday cake and a special surprise. We were lost in the quiet of after dinner conversation when from the darkness all the crew  from the Serengeti camp sprung into our tent beating drums and banging on pots. Enough hooping and hollering, my mama would have said to beat the band! Two men including our handsome young chef who by day was the quiet and consummate professional  now danced around us with wild eyes, faces painted with vanilla cake icing and pregnant, protruding bellies stuffed with pillows. “I have no idea what they are doing,” I said to my friend Jenny who stared in amazement. “Maybe it’s the word “birthday? Maybe they take the word literally…”

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It was one of the most remarkable things I had ever seen before. Round and round they went, chanting and beating their way into the night. Sonya laughed and danced. Suddenly I realized something so pervasive to African culture that I had never understood before. The singing, the fires, the drumming, the celebration. This was the survival of man, and woman of course, in Africa. It flows in their African blood. Rituals surrounding birth and death. Like the lions we heard roaring in the stillness of late night, the monkeys who carefully stalked lost morsels of food, this noisy celebration was our claim to our brief time with Africa.

The next day was Sonya’s actual birthday. Unfortunately, she did not feel well enough to go with us on our safari that afternoon. While driving back to camp, Zablon spotted a large egg laying in the grass beside the road. He brought it back to the jeep to show us. It was a perfect ostrich egg. He explained how sometimes the female ostrich will simply drop an egg wherever she happens to be. If the egg is not deposited safely into the nest, it cannot be transported by the mother ostrich and thus, would never hatch. Zablon would bring it back to camp to show the others and give the camp staff a treat for breakfast the next day. One ostrich egg equals about sixteen regular chicken eggs, he explained.

That night, despite not really understanding what it meant, we dressed  Sonya up as Mama Afrika. Zablon helped me tie the cloth around her head and waist. Just like me, she resembled a chicken. On African soil, we popped the cork from the stolen French champagne and shared it with everyone. We gave Sonya one of her most memorable birthdays. A great night for a great lady, for our new friend.

In the meantime, when we arrived back at camp from our afternoon safari. Zablon presented Sonya the egg as a birthday present telling her “We have brought you a Black Mambo egg!”

Sonya screamed.

Sonya with her one-of-a-kind birthday present, an egg from the Black Mamba! A special birthday for a special lady! Happy Birthday, Mama Afrika!

Dust to Dust

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????? My older dogs, ages eleven and eighteen, have begun waking me up in the wee hours of the morning to go outside. It is only with this new and recent habit of finding myself awake and already called out from my warm bed so much earlier than I would have preferred that I realize the ideas swirling from my dream state, itching my finger tips. Although I love writing in the evenings, I am beginning to think I should write in the mornings when I’ve only to put it all on paper.  How grateful I am that most nights I go to bed feeling frazzled and during my dreams I am somehow, miraculously knit back together.

It’s the second day after the New Year. Following a respiratory infection a month ago, I went to the Urgent Care Center yesterday for my wheezy and persistent cough; I was diagnosed with something akin to asthma, an overly reactive inflammation of my bronchial tubes. “Do you have allergies?” the doctor asked.

So perhaps that is why I woke up this morning thinking about dust. My visit to the Serengeti a few months ago was remarkable in many ways, not the least of which was the amount and consistency of dust. It was dry season; the dust was light as a feather. It coated the surface of my photographic lens and sifted into the corners of my camera bag. As our Land Cruiser flew over the rough terrain of the Serengeti, we were masked men with mouths and noses covered by scarves and bandanas. After days spent exploring the savannahs, in the evenings kind black men hauled buckets of steaming water to the back of our tents, raised the bucket overhead by pulley to create a small degree of water pressure onto the water hose and shower head. This was the best and shortest shower in the world. With the grit rinsed from my body, I felt renewed and excited, ready to go back, back into the dust.

This same dust still coats the tennis shoes and sandals I brought home and am hesitant to wash them. Just the other day, I pushed them again to the back of the laundry. It is irrational, I know, but I find myself thinking, “If I wash the shoes, might I wash away Africa?”

Until this morning as I plodded to the back door in my dream state, I had also not made the mental connection with the dust I remember from my childhood home on Goat Pasture Road. Our road was unpaved; its gravel and red clay soil provided a surface better than Africa but  far worse that I am accustomed to travelling today. For most of my childhood, we did not have air conditioning so that in the summer’s, we left the windows open, often with a fan inserted into the open window to circulate the air. On Saturday’s, along with cleaning the bathrooms, my other job was to dust the furniture. I could never get rid of that dust. It resettled immediately on the surfaces seconds after I wiped it away.

I think of this new day. This new year. Begin again. Funny how our journeys in life take us forward but they also take us back. A new year inspires resolutions, the naming of behaviors we hope to improve upon and to influence our year. these are often based on our bad behaviors the previous year. A trip may start with packing a suitcase or getting on a plane. All of these are journeys of one sort or another; journeys start in our head with a story. I am not sure if journeys ever really end. Journeys change us, less into something new but more into better versions of what we already are.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” These words with which we will leave this world are not from the Bible but rather from the 1500’s Book of Common Prayer. Still, who can doubt it is not biblically inspired? I wonder where does the dust come from? Are we not all the same? Are all places not the same?

I imagine during the rainy season, another remarkable thing in Africa might be the mud. The say the roads completely wash away. But the Africa of mud is not the Africa I know. That must be someone else’s story; I only know it through the dust.

Three Tales of Maasai Women

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We think of travel as the act of taking a trip but in the most meaningful travel experiences, it is the trip that moves through me and stays…

On my recent trip to Tanzania, I happened upon three encounters with three very different groups of Maasai women.  While women’s rights are still debated in our society, the women of east Africa have essentially no power.  Yet  these women literally carry their burdens as wives, mothers and daughters with grace, strength and courage.

Along the side of the road and in the fields, tough fibrous sisal grows and is made into beautiful rugs. Thorns grow as large as nails. We see trees sprout impossibly out of crevices and rivers emerge from the desert. 

Always, there is the act of survival here that I will forever remember as “Africa”.

 

Story #1

P1010082Driving along the roads near the Serengeti, it is common to see herds of knobby cattle and goats being tended by tall, thin young men wearing traditional tribal red or blue plaid wraps. These are the famous Maasai warriors, a semi-nomadic tribe found along the Tanzania – Kenya border. With an air of dignity, they stand guard at the watering holes, the end of their spear planted firmly into the ground. They shepherd their livestock alongside the roadside in search of fresh grazing land. Their wrap (called a kanga) is knotted over one shoulder and their black rubber sandals have been made from tires.

There are no houses here as we know them. In the fields, groups of small crude round huts are clustered together to create a small village or boma. The boma is surrounded by piles of thorny brush and tree branches. These are the homes of the Maasai. We are told how the men of this tribe are polygamous and the number of huts grouped together is indicative of the home of one husband, his wives and unmarried children. It is common to see six or seven huts in a boma, plus a few smaller ones along the peripheral for storage.

The Maasai are not the most populous of the hundreds of different tribes that comprise Tanzania, but they are one of the most popular among tourists. They are legendary warriors who are immigrated to the area hundreds of years ago from Egypt and North Africa, conquering the native tribes in their search of grazing land for their livestock. Many of their customs have led scholars to believe they could be one of the lost tribes of Israel.

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Cattle are both religion and currency to the Maasai; the more cattle, the more affluent the chief will be and the more wives he will have. The Maasai believe they have been given all the cattle in the world and they are well-known for being cattle rustlers. One of the most interesting facts about the Maasai is their diet. Cattle provide all their nutritional needs; they eat only beef and drink cow’s milk and blood. Once a month or so, they will puncture the cow’s jugular to get a gourd full of blood. It sounds very cruel but we are told that the Maasai take great care of their cattle.

In truth, the cattle may be better cared for than the women and children.

One of our excursions was to visit the Maasai to see how they live and work. On the day of our visit, Zeblon takes great joy in explaining our itinerary. The ladies in our group will spend the morning with the women of the village. In Maasai society, the women do everything. They cook, clean, carry water, do all home maintenance such as roofing and plastering and make baskets and jewelry for their own use and to sell. While the women of our group are working, Zeblon, the two male guides and men of our group will hang out with the chief to “think” and drink moonshine. Zeblon loves to tease and goes to great lengths to exaggerate how hard the women will be working while the men sit around doing nothing. You can imagine how Maasai customs do not go over well with westerners!

Until this point, we had not really seen the Maasai women, but upon arrival to the village, the women come out chattering and welcoming us. They wear colorful traditional clothing, beaded necklaces and earrings, and even brighter smiles. They take our hands and greet us warmly “Jambo! Jambo!” It took a few minutes to adjust to the unusual smells emitting from their bodies and even more time to grow comfortable holding their hands back when they grasped ours; the ebola fears have run rampant in the news and although the disease is thousands of miles from east Africa, the lack of good hygiene is unsettling.
A lady whom I will learn is named “Mary” takes me by the hand and leads me over to some younger girls who begin wrapping me like a Christmas present with fabric wrap, belt and beaded necklace. Mary’s teeth, along with most of the other ladies, are eroded and yellowed in front as if she has been chewing sugarcane. Mary has huge holes in her ears from which hang earrings shaped like an upside down beaded “V”, approximately the size of half a clothes pin. Mary is quite inventive; she assesses my look and must find me too plain, because she removes these clothespins from her earholes and hangs them from my own hoop earrings. Then, she seems to think I look fabulous.

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Now, it is time to work; Mary thrusts a small basket into my lap. She does not speak English and “jambo” seems to be the only word we have in common. I am not wearing my reading glasses and I cannot really see into the basket so she picks up my hand and hands me a wire. Oh, I finally understand what she is trying to tell me! I am to make a bracelet. I thread tiny beads onto wire with the dexterity of a two-year old. As I struggle, I glance over to see my friend Jackie trying to make a basket. Jackie is an Ob GYN, but although she is dexterous enough to sew an episiotomy and deliver babies, it seems she can not produce a suitable basket. Jackie makes a stitch or two with the grass and each time her instructor tears it apart.

The ladies finally give up on teaching us domestic tasks; it is time to celebrate. They pull us into a circle and Mary begins chanting words and the other ladies join in. We have no idea what they are saying because our interpreter is in the corner drinking moonshine. We join in and sing and dance as much as we are able.

The Maasai men decide to join in and begin a great show of doing their own dance; the point seems to be a contest of who can jump the highest. We ladies don’t know what the heck is going on but we ooh and ahh accordingly; admittedly the men do jump quite high and  then strike the ground with their spear. I am not sure if this has something to do with their sexual prowess or is the equivalent of a pissing contest, but in any case, they seem to very much enjoy showing off for us.

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Then, the ladies start chattering again and line us up in a processional; we are supposed to help the ladies carry firewood, straw and water, attempting to balance it on our heads like they do and laughing together when it fell. We mostly pretend to plaster the boma’s walls with our hands using a loamy mixture. I thought it would surely be mud but I think I was wrong…

Afterwards, the ladies descended upon us like birds at the watering hole with soap and water, cleaning the dirt from beneath our nails with broom straw. Mary barks something to the younger girls and they produce something that resembles ajax; we receive a sort of primitive Maasai manicure.

I have barely seen our “men” during this whole experience, although we ladies put some of them to work taking photographs. I had been so busy “working” I had not noticed that the chief’s father has come to visit. If I recall correctly, he says he has over 100 “children”. Before leaving, we enter a hut to talk with the chief. It is small, round and dark. There is no electricity or running water, of course; no doors or windows, just holes in the wall. The hut is divided into three areas, two small alcoves for sleeping and a center area for cooking and living area. There is no furniture to speak of, some primitive benches for us to sit on but no beds or other furniture. The “chief” rotates to a different hut every night. It can be so hot inside, that he does not sleep with the wife but rather each sleep in their own compartment. Small children stay and sleep with their mother but older ones are sent out to stay with relatives on the night their father visits. I did not see any blankets, pillows or mosquito nets in the areas I peered into, just bare dirt floors.

We emerge from the darkness of the boma to find the village women assembled in a long line with all their crafts displayed. The women are allowed to keep the money from what they sell and it is obvious they reinvest it to purchase more beads and materials, because there is a vast array of jewelry, baskets and decorative items available for our purchase. All of us buy numerous items, none are expensive. We are all compelled to help these women who have been so kind to us.

Story #2

The previous day we were driving home from another national park called Tarangire, where we saw hundreds of elephants. We were in a very rural area, off the main road, dotted with the occasional boma but mostly, there was little of interest. We happened to meet two young Maasai girls walking towards us; they were huddled together, their black faces lined in ghostly white. Our driver slowed to a stop as if to talk to them; I instinctively reached for my camera but our guide whispered no, they would not want to have their pictures taken. Later we learned we had witnessed a rare and controversial site. While circumcision is the norm in this tribe for adolescent boys, it is also often practiced on girls in what is known as female circumcision or genital mutilation. Although illegal, it is still widely practiced underground as a social custom. In most tribes, girls are not considered suitable for marriage unless this procedure has been performed. When the girls are 13 or 14, the procedure is performed  without anesthesia or surgical instruments. The painting of the faces, as we witnessed, is done just prior to their circumcision. It was no wonder the girls looked so distraught…

Dr. Jackie in our group works in New York and is well acquainted with this procedure and its devastating effects on these young girls. She explains that there are various degrees of mutilation performed. In all cases, the labia is removed and the opening of the vagina is nearly sewn shut to keep the girls from being promiscuous and from enjoying sex. When they are pregnant, they are encouraged to have babies with low birth weights in order to minimize damage. The tearing and damage to their bodies during sex and birth can lead to many more problems over time, including incontinence and infections.

The fact that this procedure is still being done on young girls has received much outrage throughout the world. During our later meeting with the chief, he told us this is something he and others are trying to educate the Maasai people about. We thanked him on behalf of women, but we can see that in remote societies like northeast Africa, change comes slowly.

I will always remember the site of those two poor young girls with their ghost faces, huddled together and moving so slowly down that dusty dirt road, and pray that change will come soon.

Story #3

While staying at Lake Barunge near Tarangire, my sister and I met another Jackie. This Jackie was a native Tanzanian who worked at the lodge in what appeared to be a management position. In addition to overseeing the dining staff during our meals, she had a little hut set up apart from our tented lodges where she also did massages. My sister and I went to see her one afternoon when we had some free time.

Jackie was one of the more modern African women we met. She presented herself well, wore western style clothing and spoke English. She was very attractive, in her mid-30’s. I asked her what it was like growing up there, being a woman. I am not sure if she didn’t quite understand my question or didn’t chose to answer it. Instead, she told me that in addition to their homes and families, many of the men had what is referred to as a “small house”, or another family kept “on the side” . She said she wanted a man who would be faithful to her. She also told my sister how she would ride her bike down the long dirt road from the lodge to a main road where she would eventually catch a bus to go see her mother. She did not mention any other family.
It didn’t seem so much that Jackie was deliberately misleading us, but rather that some of the pieces of her story were missing. For one thing, you would not expect to find an attractive thirty year old woman who was not married. For another, Jackie seemed to be a little more worldly and more affluent than most of the other women we encountered. Later, I asked one of the guides about her and he said he thought she had been married to a Maasai man.

I am not sure to which tribe Jackie belonged, but she did not look Maasai. I do not believe the Maasai men always marry Maasai women, as marrying outside one’s tribe is prevalent throughout Tanzania. By most standards, most Maasai are considered to be wealthy. While most live in the traditional lifestyle we witnessed, others are very successful businessmen, instrumental to the changing face of Tanzania.

Unlike in our country, divorce in Tanzania is rare. There is much beaurocracy and before a couple can get divorced, the extended family and relatives get very involved with both the husband and wife, trying to help them work out their problems. From what I have read, divorced women have few rights and can easily find themselves and their children unsupported and in desperate circumstances.

There is also the problem of multiple wives. I read somewhere that 70% of Tanzanian marriages are polygamous and I can only imagine how complicated that could be. I also read that during the years from 1995 to 2005, there were only around 400 divorces registered in the whole nation. Isn’t it unbelievable that a country would only have 30 or 40 divorces in a year?

One thing I do know is that women’s rights are almost non-existent in Tanzania. While things are improving, especially through education, women have very few choices. Most marriages, particularly in rural areas are pre-arranged and many of the girls are married off when they are very young. It is the bride’s family that receives the dowry, usually some form of livestock, a tradition that continues even in modern unions where it is that the bride and groom are fortunate to choose each other.

I am not sure if any of this pertains to Jackie’s situation. Perhaps she was never married, perhaps she was divorced or perhaps she decided she was simply not going to live in a polygamous situation. I doubt I will ever know.

 

My sister Janie and I are travelling with Overseas Adventure Travel throughout northeast Tanzania, Africa. OAT specializes in providing safe, affordable small group excursions to all four corners of the world with emphasis on adventure, cultural encounters and philanthropy. There’s never more than sixteen travelers and single travelers are welcome. Mention Susan Boswell and Code #1910363 to receive $100. discount towards your own adventure.

Lala salama

Campfire on the Serengeti
Campfire on the Serengeti

One of the most beautiful of the handful of words I learned in Swahili is “lala salama” which means something equivalent to “have a peaceful nights rest.” Isn’t that much more beautiful than a plain ole “good night”?

If you know me, you know how I like making plans. One of the things I must constantly remind myself is that God has much bigger plans for us than we could ever imagine. How seldom do the fears and dramas that materialize in our minds actually occur? How much more magic happens in life when we simply open ourselves to the adventure? Before leaving for Africa, my son cautioned me that a blood moon/ lunar eclipse was to occur while we were at the Serengeti. What felt like a bad omen to him felt like high drama to me, however neither circumstance was to present itself. South of the equator, the moon did not rise until long after we had retired to our tents.

In the Serengeti, I learned how magical nights can be…
The sunsets are beautiful and elusive. Every evening I try desperately to capture the moment the sun sets with my camera but it slips away, leaving an expansive afterglow. The surrounding mountains are topped with any number of species of sparse acacia trees that when silhouetted, appear exactly like unruly elephants marching across the peaks.

In the fading evening light just before dinner, we sit around our campfire and rehash the events of the day. The warm light and heat illuminates the faces of our little group and our fearless leader, Zablon Sunday. It does not illuminate the shadows beyond going bump in the night. There are large things that fly and flutter around, moths and something I never saw close enough but seemed like a bat. The beam of a flashlight may catch the glowing red eyes of hyenas in our “front yard”. One of my favorite sounds is their piercing call of woo-OOH, one of five distinctive calls they make including their trademark “laugh” which Zablon seems to think sounds a lot like me. His attempts to emulate my Southern accent within the constrains of his own African dialect, mysteriously tinged with the rolling of Spanish “r”‘s is really quite humorous. Also, there is a small river not far from the campsite and we can hear the hippos rumble and sigh throughout the night. Our friend Jackie accurately describes them as sighing in the key of James Earl Jones. It is truly as if moving to and from the water is simply too much for them to bear. The campfire is such a fitting and relaxing end to the memorable days spent in nature and although no one feels compelled to say a prayer, it is almost the same.

On our first evening in Serengeti, Janie and I make our way back to the tent after dinner to find our neighbors Shirley and Helen outside their tents, dancing in circles and worshipping the sky. Technology had found us again, albeit briefly, and they were locating constellations with their I-Phones.

I looked up into the sky that evening and what I saw was truly magnificent. So many stars, so many constellations, and so much sky. It was like a great black dome had been placed over us and each and every star was calling out “look at me!” The Milky Way appeared as just that, a huge milky streak painted against the black, generously spilled across the heavens.

No blood, no moon, no blood moon, just the magnificent evening sky as I imagine it is meant to be.

Lala salama, indeed.

Before my husband was diagnosed with sleep apnea, he snored loudly for years. Blocking the noise with earplugs became the only way I could sleep. In Africa, not because of fear but because of my curiosity and my desire to “feel” I wanted to hear every sound. Before Serengeti, we stayed in another tented cabin at Lake Barunge that is built on an elevated platform. One night, there was an incredibly loud munching and heavy movements outside the tent, a few feet from my head. I was soooo excited, “Janie!” I whisper. “Wake up!” Sis has been wearing her earplugs for more years than I have and she is slumbering peacefully, oblivious to our guest. I stumble around the tent, trying to find the flashlight, trying to find the camera and then trying to find my glasses to help me find the flashlight and the camera. My stirring must have alarmed the creature because I hear it move to the front of the tent; it sounds like it is on the front porch. I cannot see out the mesh “window” at night so I unzip the door a few inches to see the a large zebra standing in our front yard. He is standing fifteen feet away from me snorting. I can even see the dust move when he breathes. I look around carefully, I promise, before gingerly stepping outside.

The next day my sister tells on me and I get in trouble.

In Serengeti, at night I do not unzip the tent and I do not go outside. Even when I hear what I know is a warthog grunting around the tent. Do you know how cute they are?

Lying in bed at night, I hear the hyenas call back and forth and the birds sing and chirp in melodic trills. It reminds me of the whippoorwills I am so fond of back home. The lions and the hippos fill in the lower range of sounds; with a vibrato so low you almost feel rather than hear it. The hippos are far away, yet they rumble off and on for most of the night. The lion roars occasionally. As king of the jungle, a little roar goes a long way. It is exactly a Metro Goldwyn Mayer kind of roar. It is this sound I love to hear. It is not so close that it is scary, just beautiful and powerful.

I do not unzip the tent even when I hear a stampede outside. I am curious, so I get up and try to look out the mesh window. I do not know what time it is but the moon must be risen because I see shadows running around Helen and Shirley’s tent. I do not unzip the tent even though it is killing me to know what is out there. Something jumps and kicks up its heels; it moves a little like a deer. The next morning, Janie and I wake up very early, before the sun rises. We hear one of the men softly call “jambo!” to us from the darkness outside our tent and hear them pour warm water into the little canvas sink basins outside so we can wash our face with warm water. I grab the flashlight and shine the light past our tent. We stand there in our PJ’s, mouths open, to discover hundreds of red eyes looking back at us.

It seems the wildebeests stopped by for a little sleepover.

Lala salame!

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