Sunday, December 27, 2009

Off To The Airport... Again

How is it that December completely took hold of me, leaving me frozen in my tracks, unable to move forward? I never even finished writing about Portugal, and I'm heading out of town again on another adventure later today. Four years ago, I took my first West African Dance class with Idy Ciss. He told me about a two-week dance-themed tour that he leads every year in December in his native Senegal, and I was intrigued. I took a brochure, mulled it over, checked flight prices, and decided I would wait until the following year. After all, I'd only just started taking classes with him, I didn't know whether I'd like it enough to fly all the way to Africa and spend two weeks with him and a group of my fellow dance students.

The next year I wasn't able to go due to my work schedule, nor the following year, or the year after that. After not taking classes for a couple years due to work obligations, I began taking classes with Idy again in September of this year. He recognized me immediately, and welcomed me back into the class. Out of curiosity, I asked if he still did his annual tour of Senegal. "Wait right here," he said, "I have the brochures in the car."

This year I'm unemployed; the only thing stopping me is the common sense logic of not spending money on an expensive airline ticket when I'm only earning what the Illinois Department of Employment Security pays me every two weeks. On the other hand, with adventures of this kind, its always a question of having the time and the money, and I rarely have both. I had just committed to doing the Habitat for Humanity project in Portugal, but I didn't want to let this one slip away for yet another year. At some point, I reasoned, I won't want to fly to Senegal to dance. Someday I might not be in the physical shape necessary for such an undertaking, or, more likely, someday I'll have a job that will keep me from traveling internationally for two weeks at a time.

I started looking at flights, which are expensive - its not cheap to fly to Senegal, flights typically run about $1,800. One day I was scanning flights and came across one at the unbelievably low (for flying to Senegal) price of $1100. I asked Idy about it; "oh, you won't find anything cheaper than that," he said, "book that today." When I got home I discussed it with M. "Is it crazy?" I asked, somewhat rhetorically. M convinced me to buy the ticket, reasoning that I've wanted to go for years and this might be my one big chance. I bought the ticket. The next day the price went up to $1,800.

All of this was months ago, and in the interim I've had all kinds of adventures, both close to home and far away. I've gone to the travel clinic for immunizations (yellow fever, typhoid, and would you believe polio?) and prescriptions for malaria and something called travelers diarrhea to take with me on my trip. I've watched the calendar with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, and once again, the date has snuck up on me. I spent most of this weekend preparing for this journey, and will be heading to the airport later today. As those of you in the Midwest and on the East Coast know, there's been weather trouble at a number of airports, and as all of you doubtless know, there's been an increase in security. With luck, I'll be in Senegal by tomorrow. If I get delayed maybe there will be time for one more post before the end of the year.

When I return I'll have a backlog of posts to write, but I guess that's not such a bad problem to have. Thanks to all of you for following my adventures, have a wonderful new year's, and I'll talk to you all in 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Nutcracker

I've shied away from re-posting every single thing that I write for Gapers Block, but I really had fun with this one, I got to see a performance of The Nutcracker with my upstairs neighbors' daughters, who are 3 and 6 years old.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Portugal, Part I

My roommate's alarm went off at 7. She hit the snooze, then got up when it sounded a second time. "Hi J," she said.
"Hi," I said from underneath my bedsheets, "you must be Frances, it's nice to meet you." Frances was the team leader from Habitat, I'd sent her a photo and bio of myself so she could compile it into a document along with the rest of the team's information and email it to us before the trip. I wrote about myself using the third person, and felt like a tool when I saw that everyone else had written about themselves using the first. Secretly I was hoping that I would be paired up with Frances as a roommate, I'd considered a few different Habitat trips before committing to this one, and her easy going manner and Midwestern hominess had sold me. She's originally from Michigan, and I have a soft spot for America's high-five. Some of the best people I've ever met are from Michigan, and every summer M and I spend time at my in-laws' summer cottage in a town called Dowagiac; maybe choosing a trip based on the regional familiarity of the team leader isn't the best way to make a decision, but its not the worst either.

Frances hadn't heard me enter the room the night before, so I explained my unintended late-night check-in, and told her I'd be joining the group later with another team member who hadn't yet arrived. After Frances left the room I could hear the other team members gathering in the hallway, snippets of conversation as they made their way out of their rooms and down the stairs, and wondered which bios matched the voices I was hearing. At 8a.m. church bells rang out, first from one church, then another and another. I lost track of how many, and wondered if this would be an hourly occurrence. Just when I thought I'd never get back to sleep I drifted off.

I woke at 10, ravenous. I descended a flight of stairs to the breakfast room, where evidence that other guests had recently dined surrounded me; empty coffee cups and crumb-filled dishes populated the tabletops in pairs. I approached the buffet table and picked up what I thought was a coffee mug and realized was a cereal bowl only after I'd poured instant coffee into it. The food selection was spare: cereal in plastic dispensers; a few lonely yogurts in a bowl of melted ice; bread rolls; and a couple slices of ham and cheese. I ate a roll with butter and jam, and two pieces of something that looked like zwieback crackers. Then I went back to my room and, Portuguese glossary in hand, walked out of the hotel onto the cobblestone street.

It was raining a little, not enough to really be called rain. Misty drops of condensation landed on my face and darkened the cobblestones, creating a high-contrast tone reminiscent of an old black and white photo. A hundred feet to my left was a cathedral, twenty feet to my right was something that looked like a diner called Refrigerador da Sé . I walked to the cathedral in time to see a group of Asian tourists approach the edifice in silent observation, guidebooks in their hands and cameras around their necks. I followed them into the cathedral and looked inside, then walked back up the street past my hotel, and crossed the street into new territory. I walked past a school where the voices of young students singing in unison could be heard, and further along the narrow street the proprietor of a bar stood outside his establishment and silently watched me walk past him until I rounded the corner to a wide avenue that led to residential buildings and a dead end. I was hungry; I retraced my steps to Refrigerador da Sé, and opened my glossary to the food page.

"Sandsh?" I asked the young, dark-haired woman behind the counter while pointing to the word sandes, which according to my glossary meant sandwich. She called over an older woman, who pointed to all the words in my glossary that were available at the Refrigerador, and said them out loud to me. Then she opened a menu and pointed to the various items available; when her finger hovered over the word omelete, I made a happy sound and nodded my head. "Café?" I asked, the woman nodded and said: "sim" (sounds like si). "Can I sit here?" I asked, pointing to a small round table by the window. She held her hand out towards the table, indicating that the table was available. A few minutes later a delectably strong cappuccino and a ham and cheese omelet served with rice and fries was delivered to me. It was a small victory, but I was extraordinarily pleased with myself. I ate everything on my plate. "Obrigado," I said to the woman as I left, "Obrigado, bom dia," she replied.

Later I was driven to the job site by Irène, a Habitat Portugal staffer, along with the team member whose flight had landed earlier that day. We drove through the town and up into green hills, and parked near the small building we'd be working in for the next week. I walked in and immediately saw Frances.
"There's J!" She said. I was directed to the basement where I put on the construction gloves M had insisted on buying me at Menards, picked out a hard hat, and was assigned to a room in the back of the building to apply cement to the walls. The foreman demonstrated, slopping a pile of cement from a bucket using a trowel, and heaping it onto a flat rectangular plate with a handle on the underside. With the plate in his left hand, he scooped up several ounces of cement onto the back of the trowel with his right, and spread it onto the wall as easily as if he were icing a cake. It was much harder and went much slower when I did it. When the foreman stopped by my station to see how I was doing, he held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart and said "Mais." It sounded like maish, and I knew from context that he was telling me to apply more cement.

By the time we called it a day and walked to the bus stop a few blocks from the job site my wrist was sore from the repeated motion and effort of spreading cement. I had finally met my fellow team members, and if I were to cast celebrities in the movie version of this trip it would break down like this: there was a mother of two from Minneapolis who could be portrayed by Bebe Neuwirth; a woman from California who worked in the film industry who might be played by Lili Taylor; a young ad exec from New York City who could possibly be portrayed by Cher circa 1968; a viola player from New Jersey with a resemblance to Shirley MacLaine; an outdoors-man from Vermont who had a passing resemblance to John Malkovich; an attorney from Utah who could easily be played by Catherine O'Hara; the Habitat team leader, who reminded me of Frances McDormand circa Fargo; and a young man who lived with his parents in southern France, who could be played variously by Nicholas Cage circa Valley Girl or Leaving Las Vegas, depending on the situation. Over the next week or so I would come to know these people, but for now all I knew of them was what I'd read in their bios, and the few hours we'd spent working together.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different

I feel like I just looked up and suddenly a week has passed since my last post. More travel stories will be coming soon, in the meantime I've been reading my blog stats on google analytics, and have discovered some interesting key word searches that are bringing people to my blog. Below is a list of some of the funnier ones, it kind of reads like a prose poem:

ban nudity in living rooms
coitus groom to his bride in front of the guests
cranberry juice, red pee
drummer with dialysis
happy halloween fat woman's butt as a pumpkin
i pee in my moth
lane bryant embarrassed to be measured
miriam celedonia
led zeppelin immigrant song single blogspot
nude people in noodles
peehole stabbing finger
pentwater adult store
ramen noodles with marijuana
strange sensation afer i pee
red hook immigrant story
why is there no word for seventy in french
uncontrollable exhaling