Friends for the Long Road

If you ever take an extended family trip into a wilderness area, may I offer one bit of advice?
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Take another family along with you.
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Try to find a family that’s a good fit for your family, people who’ll tolerate graciously your own family’s peculiarities – who even like your peculiarities – who like you and love every one of your children.

All of them.
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Meaning that they’ve been a central, unflagging support in the heaviest trial of your life, feeling the absence of your one child whom they, too, enjoyed so much and love still.
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It helps if you have known each other in that way.

And if you’ve known each other nearly your whole lives.
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(Does “since kindergarten” count as one’s whole life?)

If, for instance, the husbands have known each other since they were five years old, and if the wives have known each other’s husbands since high school, and if the wives themselves have known each other since college.
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If you all grew up in the same four-mile radius.

That kind of knowing. Then you’re probably on the right track. Try, if possible, to find folks with that kind of shared history.

Then one more thing.

Make sure they’re geniuses.
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Because if you’re not excessively bright yourself, it helps to have someone in your group who is. They’re there to explain stuff.

You see, they’ll bring a whole library full of guide books. Insect guides.
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Flora/fauna guides.
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Bird guides.
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Mammal guides.
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Worm guides.
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Arachnoid guides.
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And those are just the books implanted in their heads. Unlike you, they haven’t done a crash course to be ready for the wilderness. They’ve been storing up knowledge for decades.

It could just be that these lifelong friends happen to be scientists. And if they are, they can turn your wilderness trip into several running episodes of Through the Wormhole.

You’ll benefit from such friends if they’re not only scientists, but are specifically doctors of medicine. In case you’re attacked by charging rhinos, elephants or swarms of tsi-tsi flies.

Or if you’ve stepped on a thorn.
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And if on top of all this these doctor-scientist friends of yours are respected skin cancer researchers, you’ll be assured sunscreen reapplication breaks every hour or so. (Of course, the melanoma specialist is the only one who’ll get the burn.)
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This family you’re thinking of traveling with? It’s great if some of their children are close to the ages of some of your own. And if possible, be sure they’re easy going, inquisitive, non-bratty, adventuresome, incredibly droll, and delightfully photogenic children.
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And check first to see if they’re fun. Because it is great and all to be a smart, skin-savvy, walking guide book. But you’ve all come a long way to this wilderness. So it should be fun, too.
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But not just fun.

Funny.
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Inhale-your-lentils-whole, split-a-gut, outlaugh-the-hyenas kind of funny.

It’s good if your friends can make everyone — your children, your selves and the grazing water buffalo –– stop cold in their tracks, snorting and guffawing pawing the ground with laughter.

These smart funny friends might also be the sorts who’ll be eager to get up a couple of hours before dawn to drive way out into the savannah just to wait in complete silence while the sun slowly rises in order to catch a brief glimpse of this one majestic creature:
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They’ll trudge anywhere following the Masai guide. . .
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They’ll treat the local culture with respect and good humor.
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They’ll make friends easily.
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They’ll canoe blithely with you in hippo-inhabited waters.
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They’ll dance with you well into the night.
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They won’t burp or jerk around, flip rubber bands or throw spit wads when you’re sitting five feet from these guys. . .
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And they’ll ooh and ahh at every last ohh-and-ahh-able detail of this earth’s creation. . .
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So much so, that when your wilderness adventure comes to its end, you’ll be as sad to leave them as you are to leave it.
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**
Next post, let me introduce you to Albert and our other fabulous guides. They saved us from being washed away when a river suddenly flooded and took us to the boma (family village) of one of the Masai guides.

Please leave your comments:

Do you have a special travel memory? Did you share it with another person or family? What makes good travel partners? Where are you longing to travel still? Have you ever been in a decidedly non-Christmasy location for Christmas? What did you do, then, to celebrate that holiday in a meaningful, reverent way?

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Teacha Claira

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

Moshi lies an hour north of Arusha, Tanzania, literally in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

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This is where our daughter Claire spent nearly five months volunteering in a juvenile detention center which, at the time, housed over twenty boys. Officially, these detainees were supposed to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But age is a flexible reality in Tanzania.  Some of them might have been almost as young as they looked, closer to ten or eight, it’s hard to judge.

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Officially, Claire’s work was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic; she was their one-room schoolhouse teacher.

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But she also instructed them in psychosocial skills.

And cooking.  Hygiene. Hope. Self respect. Whatever these boys needed.

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A year earlier, the boys used to share the same, cramped facility with girls lodged in an adjacent room.  Twenty-plus simple metal-framed bunk beds to a chamber.  This season, however, there were no female delinquents, it seemed. The system, otherwise full of loopholes and inadequacies, had at least succeeded in separating the sexes.  One can only imagine (and research and statistics verify) the rampant abuse, both sexual and physical, that takes place in conditions where youths are detained for prolonged periods in one facility with children or adults of both genders.  Such mixing is illegal of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

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Why were these boys incarcerated in the first place?

From the boys with whom she grew closest and from a local assistant, Claire got a description:

This one had played hooky from his school, and so his parents sent him away.

The other one over there who looked ten years old but was probably eighteen had disrespected an elder. In other words, he’d fought back to protect a woman his uncle (and caregiver) was physically abusing.

The boy by the window was guilty of being abandoned. Next to him was a child whose mother had turned to prostitution to feed her children.  It is apparently illegal to be the child of a prostitute, not to be a prostitute oneself.

Another was the product of two AIDS-stricken parents who could no longer care for him.  There was nowhere else to put him but in detention.

This one had used “offensive language.”  One had been accused of homosexual activity. A few had been found wandering the streets begging, which in spite of Tanzania’s ubiquitous poverty, is a criminal offense.  Another had been selling plastic bottles on a corner, the gain from which his mother required to buy food for his siblings since there was no wage-earning father in the house.

Among them all there were but two serious allegations, one of rape and the other of murder. But the legitimacy of both allegations was dubious, and the accused perpetrators looked as world-weary, wide-eyed and vulnerable as starved hunting dogs.

What did they do day in and day out in juvi? Who was in charge?

The boys were overseen by two women they called The Mammas. These women –imposing, surly, dispensers of brusque corporal punishment – kept the boys in line from where they sat in a shaded alcove, directing the boys’ day’s work which included hauling the logs to build morning fires over which the boys cooked their own meals in this kitchen.
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“You must beat them,” one Mamma advised Claire in broken English the first day Claire came to work. “Beat,” the Mamma clapped her meaty hands in a firm whack into the air and then kicked her sandaled foot into the dirt, “Big beat.

Claire was not allowed to touch let alone beat the boys, of course, not that they ever needed beating or that she would ever have been inclined to beat them. She found them totally deferent and frankly too weak and fearful to do anything but follow orders.

The boys spent their mornings and afternoons in the classroom, where they were taught by Claire and an assistant.  Anything she ever knew about world geography, nursery rhymes, Robocop and Jackie Chan movies came in handy.  She taught it all. At the end of each session, she rewarded them by letting them congregate around her iPhone. They were quick to master technology.

At noon, the boys would kick around a ball in a small courtyard. Otherwise, they were to stay in their communal bunk room.

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There, they played a lot of cards. Some tried to read. Their life, you could say, was one protracted wait. They were never updated on their particular case, where it lay in the mounting pile of cases involving children in the Tanzania legal system.  They would wait for months at least. Some, for years.

And it would require a dissertation – or several dissertations, which no doubt exist – not a mere blogpost, to begin to pick apart the societal and governmental complexities that sustain such a corrupt program as the Tanzanian juvenile justice system. I wish I could devote more time and research to what I glimpsed in a matter of hours and gleaned from my conversations with Claire.  What I can write, though, is that these boys’ incarceration, living standards, and hope for a fair trial and for any decent future were grim beyond belief.

Most if not all of these children would be sitting in the bleakness of detention for months on end before their case would ever reach a given desk so they could appear before a judge.  On that day, they would not be allowed to defend themselves, would probably not see their parents, (who because of poverty, shame, despair or disinterest would not appear to defend their child at court), and most children could not speak the language of the court to begin with.

What was also striking was that for being “delinquents”, if every last one of these youths truly was delinquent, they were extraordinarily well-behaved.  They kept their eyes low, their voices soft, their hands folded tightly in their laps, bare feet flat on the cement floor. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think juvi was a clearing house for the Gifted and Talented.

“Good morning, Teacha Claira,” they chant in quiet unison. They hold their boney arms straight to their sides.  Their hands look overused and overlarge. Some of their backs probably had scars whose history I would hate to know.

These are real-life lost boys, and as I watch them all rise on their impossibly thin legs, my mind goes to the only other Lost Boys I know of; Peter Pan’s lively cohorts.  Troublemakers and goof-offs, those boys, hooligans and, since they eventually turn into donkeys, I guess I’m okay writing here that they were smart-asses.  They aren’t like these boys who stand in front of me, barefoot and obedient, toeing this unforgiving cracked cement.  Those fairytale donkey boys are not like these forgotten and disposed-of ones who eat thin gruel and bear their daily blows from The Mammas.  These lost boys in front of me stand waiting helplessly for their orders, be they from their advocate-teacher who will teach them English synonyms for “happy” today, or from a one-day judge who will, the world can only hope, hear them in their voicelessness.

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Tanzania and Juvy

How do you land a job as an assistant warden in a Tanzanian juvenile detention center?

Entrance to Arusha, Tanzania Juvenile Detention Center

Entrance to the Juvenile Detention Center in Moshi, Tanzania

Approximately the same way you end up serving as a full-time LDS missionary in southern Italy.

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You prepare yourself. You apply. You close your eyes, open up a letter, then open those eyes to see where you have been assigned.

And you ratchet up your Swahili.

(Or Italian.)

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Since her childhood, Claire has had this fixation on African animals. And since her youth spent in Paris with its dominant francophone-African population, she’s felt a keen interest in all things African. And so during her junior year at University, (where she studied Humanities with an English emphasis and French and African Studies as her double minor), she began inquiring seriously into different service programs that would take her for a semester as a volunteer to the Big Continent.

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Clinton Foundation?
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Gates Foundation?
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Peace Corps?
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Green Peace?
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Kenya? Sudan? Ghana? Cameroon?
Mali, Malawi, Botswana?
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Working with endangered animals?
Endangered women?
Endangered children?
With entire populations endangered by AIDS?
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After months of research and telephone interviews, we settled on a reputable program based in Arusha, Tanzania, in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro.
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As is required for an LDS mission, Claire had to have a certain level of preparation and stability and a strong endorsement in order to be considered for this program. She filled out lots of forms, submitted letters of recommendation, and was finally accepted for the fall 2011 program.
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What she did not know on the outset was precisely what her assignment in Tanzania would be.

She could have been placed to work in a hospital, or in one of the many shelters for battered women, or could have interned with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, located in Arusha.

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

But. . .our girl was assigned to juvi.

I can’t say her initial reaction to the whole juvi idea was effusive. And just between us, I had my reservations, too, of course. Teaching delinquent male teenagers (some in for serious crimes like murder, I was told, and some for minor and trumped up infractions like disrespecting their elders) in a caged environment? Every day? So I asked: uh, so, any chance my daughter’s going to pack some heat? Wear Kevlar? Who gets to be her body guard? Because she’d never be left alone with felons. . . right?

. . .right?
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After less than a week teaching her twenty or so charges at juvi, Claire had fallen fiercely and irreversibly in love.

Next post, I’ll tell you more about the young men my Claire calls her “Boys”, the ones who call her “Teacha Claira”, the boys-made-men who won my daughter’s heart, the ones who, that last day in late December when we came as a family to pick her up and take her away into the wilderness, were silenced with respect, motionless on their low, dilapidated wooden benches. Sad and adoring. Concerned and apologetic when they saw their “Teacha” was wiping tears.
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These boys were the same “criminals”, by the way, who showed their depth of love for Claire in a most visceral way.

They begged and insisted she come back the next week after Christmas. “A big party for you,” the leader boy named Prosper told her, his eyes glinting with pride, yet weighted as if he were forty. She must come back because all of them wanted to give her something “very special.” And so Claire managed to come back.

She left well before dawn from where our family was camping out in the Serengeti and by means of three modes of transportation driven (or flown) by the kindest locals, made it back to her juvi where the boys were waiting, she told me later, all lined up, shy, sober and smiling.  Practically happy with themselves.

Prosper escorted her into the courtyard on whose walls they’d painted a mural together that fall.  He was eager to show her their extravagant gift.

“Please. For you, Teacha Claira.”

And there is was, fresh and bright, a most luxurious offering.

The boys had slaughtered her a goat.
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2012: A Year’s Passage

Christmas Day 2011, Tanzania

December 2011, Tanzania

December 2012, Switzerland

December 2012, Switzerland

Like you, winding up a year makes me look back, unwinding it.  While you’ve been with me for half of 2012 (I launched this blog in May), having strapped yourself in just in time for the second part of the year’s ride, (that big move from Singapore to Switzerland, if you remember), you missed out on the entire front half of the calendar.  That’s kind of a shame, really, because there was stuff going on, friend.  Are you interested in seeing a bit of that passage?

Christmas week, 2011. . .

Christmas week, 2011. . .

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Before I get carried away, though, may I insert a small, smiling caveat?

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As you visit here throughout December, would you please keep something in mind? It’ll help so that I don’t feel too crippled by self-consciousness and you won’t feel sludgy or arrggghy or slumpy. Or slap-toppy.

(That stinging state of mind when you slap shut your lap top, resenting what you just saw inside it.)

Not that you would slap shut on me. But in case.  Since you know, things happen.

Please hear my whispered voice saying that these posts are all given in the spirit of sharing between friends this riotously colorful and complex globe we live on. These posts are about nothing but that: sharing, celebrating, being whooshed away with wonder.

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So consider today’s post a jiffy Table of Contents for what you can expect to read here throughout December, this last month  of 2012.

There was an extended trip to Tanzania, Africa.  I will post several times on that and explain why we were there in the first place, what things I observed, why I want to return.  The photos alone are worth clicking in here once in a while. (I didn’t take them; my men did.)

Then there was Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand.

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 And Indonesia and Hong Kong.

And that morning spent diving with dolphins in Mauritius. 

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When not posting on the past passage of 2012, I’ll keep you abreast of the current passage, what we are experiencing in the here-and-now.

“Here”: Central Europe.

“Now”: right about. . . now. This alone will keep us busy, as we’ve planned a couple of family outings.

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Come with us to Vienna to hear these talented boys sing…

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Drive with us to Strasbourg for the Christmas market that dates from the 1500’s…

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Take the TGV with us to Paris

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Then get some retrospective Paris with a few excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir where most recently we’ve been looping back to Norway but we’ll now return to France.

Only to leave France briefly.

Only to return to France for a few more years.

All to keep you thoroughly confused and a bit transfixed.

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And finally, come share with us our first Swiss Christmas. They promise to be deeply, whitely, purely holy days.

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