Making Ghosts Dance by Gregory E. Buford
Ways to know you had a successful mini-vacation to Mexico City:
1) You have a hard time stepping into your pants due to muscle soreness on one entire side of your body. You’d like to say this was from falling off a Mexican pyramid, as that sounds way more adventurous than the truth- you jumped/fell off a wall at some Mexican pyramids. Instead, the real story is that after climbing up two enormous pyramids, both of which were terrifying, as heights may not be your “thing” and there are not nearly enough safely railings/ropes to make it the smartest choice ever, your legs were like jelly. Rather than thinking through the fact that you were doing well to be upright and making forward progress in the midday heat of Mexico City in May, a city that sits nearly a mile above sea level when you live in a city that clocks in at about 400 feet above sea level, you considered yourself invincible and without pondering the possible repercussions, you jumped (in the end “fell” is probably a more accurate verb, but for this part of the tale we’ll stick with the more self-guided “jumped”) off a short wall rather than walking around the long way to get to your destination. Said wall was about three feet high, but because your legs were still quivering from the last terrifying pyramid descent, when your feet hit the ground, rather than holding you up in a graceful manner, your thighs melted like butter and you hit the ground like a giant sack of potatoes. Yup. All the way to the ground. As you peel yourself off the red dirt ground, you brush gravel from your palms, calf and rear of your capris and try to make a nimble exit. (It’s hard to imagine an Aztec, native to the temple complex, biting it so hard, although you content yourself with the thought that all peoples must have had klutzes in their midst.) As with many injuries, it wasn’t the day of the spill or even the following one, but that third one when the soreness really set in seriously. Your colleagues might be sympathetic, but you know they are also laughing because there is no good way to explain your ridiculous limp and the groans that emanate from your cubicle each time you sit or stand. But, limping around the building after a vacation is just a sign that you did it right!
2) Those same pants fit a bit tighter in the waist because you ate all the chicken tacos and a good number of the churros in Mexico. You might be a picky eater, but the food in Mexico was right up your alley. Imagine a place where most items are brought in pieces and you get to assemble them, as desired. This means you can make chicken tacos without the hot salsa or with a few beans on top or without the fried onions or with a bit of cheese. You can have it your way, day after day. Plus, there is a lovely little corner restaurant devoted entirely to churros. You can get churros by the foot, you can get little churro nuggets, you can get churros with hot chocolate or ice cream or dipping sauces. You can get churros! (As a side note, because of the current Foreign Service hiring freeze, you did ponder, for a few moments, the need for a new career in the future and churro cutting guy’s job looked pretty enticing. Just you, a giant spiral of freshly fried churro, and a pair of sharp scissors. Churro cutting might be where it is at!) Needless to say, tacos and churros do not make for a skinny-traveler diet.
3) You caught up of months of chatter with friends, covering everything from common connections from previous posts to current Foreign Service policy and book recommendations to tales of first dates and matchmaking. Yes, you can keep track of friends by Facebook stalking them or through occasional messages here and there, but a few days wandering a city, exploring sites, and eating meals together creates the perfect opportunity to discuss all the things, from tiny to tremendous, going on in your lives and around the world.
4) You paid a small amount of money to watch grown men (and a couple of women) don tight spandex and fight it out in a sweaty wrestling ring, inside an arena that smelled more than vaguely like puke. You’ve seen it referenced online and you remember seeing clips of WWE on TV as a child, but you haven’t really experienced Mexico City until you’ve enjoyed an evening of luche libre wrestling. Of course, you can’t pass up the chance to sit in the crowd as the hawkers sell beer in cups that look like they can hold a gallon of liquid and bear witness to the craziness that is a luchadores match crowd. You might be a bit horrified by the things being yelled, bilingually, at the fighters, most of it wholly inappropriate for the eight-year-old sitting in the row in front of you, but boy did he get a multilingual vocabulary lesson that night. Yes, you cringed when Sam Adonis, the “American” wrestler runs around the ring with a giant Stars and Stripes flag with Trump’s face plastered in the middle of it, encouraging the crowd in their crazy screaming and you have to cover your eyes as wrestlers thrown themselves off the ropes onto the cement floor of the stadium, but you cannot pass up the chance to experience this ridiculous form of entertainment. (And, of course, your better half can’t walk away from the venue without purchasing his very own luchador mask, so Blue Dragon is now a part of your life for the foreseeable future.)
5) You spent an afternoon in what must be the party boat capital of Latin America. Xomilcho is a cultural outing that must be experienced and you had no intention of not taking part. The kinder internet sites refer to it as “floating gardens,” and you give them credit for their diplomatic renderings, but you quickly realize that Xomilcho is a strange blend of bumper boats, picnicking, floating bars, and agile salesmen unlike anything you’ve seen before. After a price (per boat, not person) is negotiated, you settle in to your brightly colored party cruiser (cruising= being poled up the canals by a boatman, Venice-style, without the same panache) and head out for a two-hour float. Over the course of the next two hours you experience a water jam that would make Malaysian drivers proud, with boat owners calling each other idiots as they push off one another and the banks to try to make their way up the waterway. You also enjoy a snack of roasted corn in a cup, sold to you by a man in a small skiff. You can’t leave without the purchase of a plastic flower headband- all the girls are sporting them. You opt not to hire a floating mariachi band, although you do enjoy their music as they serenade other boats full of people out to enjoy El Dia de Los Niños. Oh, and drinks. Lots of drinks. Your boatman’s sidekick brought a bucketful of ice and beverage options at the outset and counted empties at the end. It can’t get more convenient than that!
6) You come home with the same passport you had when you left the country (as you know from previous posts, this isn’t always the case with Mexico trips). There isn’t much else to be said about this. Usually you are a very organized and contentious traveler and then sometimes the world conspires against you and you find yourself passport-less in a Mexican beach resort town. These things happen. But, they did not happen this time, so it counts as a win. Borders are crossed. Passports are stamped. All is good in vacation-land. (Posts about January’s missing passport can be found here and here.)
7) You feel like you need a vacation from your vacation to recover from said injury, weight gain, chatter, and hours of sightseeing. You get back to the United States and are a strange combination of exhausted and relaxed. (You fought a bit of a stomach bug on the way back, plus you flew United, so overall you are happy to have flown without any major incidents of any kind!) You are eager to get back to work and catch up on what you missed (and boy, did you miss things!) but you also struggle to wrap your mind around going back into the office and settling back into your cubicle. But, you struggle into your adorable coral-colored ankle pants because no one likes that guy who calls in sick the day after vacation. Sore and scraped and tired, you throw yourself back into your work and begin to daydream of your next adventure (Iceland in June!).
(A *huge* thank you goes out to our wonderful and gracious hosts in Mexico City,Jessica and Paul!)
(Photo credits go out to Thad R. and Paul O.)
(Time lapse videographer: Thad Ross)
Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process. For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.
In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.
Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe. Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?
Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.
Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.
Yes, I said elephant halfway house.
Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.
But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)
The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)
Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.
The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?) with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)
Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in. I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!
Sixteen hours is a long time to be stuck in a single seat in a winged tin can. Sixteen hours is two full work days. Sixteen hours is two full nights of sleep. Sixteen hours is nearly eight movies, watched back to back. Sixteen hours can be forty-eight episodes of your favorite sitcom. (Currently, that is Black-ish in my world. Fantastic!!) Sixteen hours is painful at the eight-hour mark when you realize you have to do everything you’ve already done again before wheels touch the ground again. Sixteen hours can be a tiny bit of torture, both physically and psychologically.
Sixteen hours means different things to different travelers. For some, it is the amount of time it takes to get back to their loved ones. For others, it is the amount of time it takes to leave one life behind and begin a new one. Some travelers do cross-oceanic flights on a regular basis for business and it is just another blip on the work radar, while some are experiencing their first flight over a couple of hours.
Living in China and Malaysia has given me a pretty good tolerance for looooong flights, although this one ranks right up there in terms of hours spent on one single plane. Stateside, I don’t even blink at a five or six-hour flight on the way back to Idaho. It’s all about perspective! (Heck, I hardly need to pack anything to entertain myself when flying cross-country in the U.S. Between the inflight magazine, the safety card, and the tiny package of peanut-free rice snacks, I’m set for more hours than I’d like to admit.) Unfortunately, the young man with whom I shared a row from Atlanta to Johannesburg (cheers for an empty middle seat!) was experiencing long-haul travel for the first time (Emory student- there were a whole slew of them on the flight). I have no idea what his name was, but let’s call him Kevin. He seemed like a Kevin. Kevin had flown regionally a bit, but had never done an overnight, many, many hour-long flight. I’m not sure where he got his travel advice, but he decided it was best to go the comatose route for the duration, so no sooner at the doors been sealed, he popped a sleeping pill (maybe two?), donned an eye mask and noise cancelling headphones and was seriously not heard from again for eight hours. (Multiple of Kevin’s buddies came by to take photos of Sleeping Beauty throughout his lengthy nap. I am sure some gentle ribbing will ensue.)
In general, I have no issue with Kevin’s choice to sleep away as much of the flight as possible, but it did become an issue after I had two glasses of Coke and really needed a quick trip to the lavatory in the sky. Starting with a gentle nudge to the arm, I tried to resuscitate my row-mate, but to no avail. With a hardier jostle, I tried again, but had no luck in even affecting a position change. A bit baffled and unsure what my next step would be, I happened to make eye contact with a guy standing in the aisle, just stretching and biding his flight time. The guy had watched the whole nudge/jostle routine in amusement and apparently I Iooked like I really did need some time away from 23J, because with a smile, he held out his hand as leverage and helped me crawl over top of Kevin. Kevin didn’t budge an inch or make a sound as I made my way from the window to the aisle. Not even a sleep snort.
So, how does one wile away sixteen hours (other than Kevin’s self-induced coma option)? Just like this!
7:10-7:45PM Watch passengers file onto the plane, fingers and toes crossed that the empty middle seat remains vacant, giving side-eye to anyone to slows down in the vicinity
7:45PM– Internal cheer that the plane doors closed and the middle seat is flier-less
7:45-7:50PM– Unload backpack, storing books and headphones in the seatback compartment, de-shoe, shoving them against the plane side to only come out during bathroom breaks, slide backpack into the middle seat foot space clearing up extra legroom, claim extra blanket from empty seat and settle in for the duration
7:50-9:00PM- Bust out a new book- A Very Expensive Poisoning by Luke Harding in this case (I’d say that saving this book for the flight has been killing me, but given its topic of state-sponsored murder, that might be a bad way to go. Plus, I’d only had it two days. But, I did want to start it two days ago!)
9:00-10:00PM- Eat dinner of pasta, breadsticks and brownie while watching Chip and Joanna be adorable as they fix up a crazy, falling apart property, daydreaming of owning a house again one day (Flying solo meant I only had access to one meal, so no item swapping for me this time around. Usually my salad goes to Thad and I get his roll in return. I was not unhappy to find several items I’d eat on the tray though, including a small bar of cheese and package of crackers, so while I would prefer my favorite travel partner to be along, I did survive and not starve this time around.)
10:00PM– Make acrobatic move to get over Kevin and visit the loo, thanks to the aisle dweller from the row in front of me. This was much more awkward for me than Kevin, as he still has no idea it happened and let’s be honest, it wasn’t pretty!
10:00PM-Midnight– Back to A Very Expensive Poisoning to continue to be both horrified and fascinated with the lengths certain current world leaders will go to in order to maintain control
Midnight- 2:00AM- Attempt sleep- curl up in a ball with feet tucked in until legs have lost all circulation, then switch to the bent-in-half position until either the guy in front reclines his seat, possibly causing a minor concussion, or until both legs have again lost all circulation and toes are tingling
2:00-3:00AM- Too tired to focus on reading but unable to sleep and too lazy to find a show worth thinking about for more than three minutes at a time, I stare blankly at the seatback in front of me, much like Puddy when Elaine breaks up with him after their trip to Europe on the fourth season of Seinfeld
4:00- 6:00AM– It is no longer actually early morning, as in the middle of the ocean time is messed up and I have no idea what time it is or what meal I should be wanting. I eat the banana out of random bagged “lunch” brought around by flight attendants. (Avoid the pre-made sandwich and the granola bar that is more crumb than bar. I supplement this snack with the animal crackers I brought in my backpack, knowing that at some point I would be hungry and left hanging by the offered meal service.)
6:00AM- Realizing that Kevin is up and in the aisle, I take advantage of the easy access to make another trip to the tiny ladies’ room, taking along a toothbrush and facewipe to make a measly attempt at freshening up mid-flight, and do a bit of bulkhead yoga as I await my turn in the tiny cubicle of a water closet
6:00-8:00AM- Continue restless sleep activity. Switch positions roughly every 20 minutes. Mostly be awake and annoyed.
8:00-9:00AM- “Enjoy” breakfast/dinner items from the Delta team. I opted for the chicken salad, eating the cold grilled chicken, pineapple and cookies. Watch another whirlwind house renovation thanks to Chip and Joanna. (This time around, I really could have used the trade-deal I have going with Thad. I am sure he would have appreciated my extra salad-offerings in return for his package of cookies.)
9:00-10:30AM-Finish the last pages of A Very Expensive Poisoning just as the plane touches down in South Africa, silently marking another continent off the checklist and rather pleased at my reading rationing. (Antarctica- I’m coming for you, somehow, some way!)
Not able to bear the idea of eight movies (are there even eight movies out there that I would want to watch?) or forty-eight episodes of a TV show (even the witty and well-written Black-ish), I opted for reading, kinda’ sleeping, and a bit of zoned-out staring. Just ten short days from now, I’ll be making the return flight, getting to go through the whole schedule again. A new book will need to be purchased (why, or why, this one time have NONE of my library books come off hold?!) and I’m crossing my fingers and toes for yet another empty middle seat to give just a bit more elbow room to the seemingly never-ending flight. Coming to Johannesburg I was excited about the prospects of exploring a new place and energetic/anxious about leading my first CLO training. Headed home, I’ll be looking forward to seeing Thad again, getting back into the flow of work, and preparing for a spring-full of DC visitors.
“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air.”
― Wilbur Wright