Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 in Review

I didn't visit a single new country in 2007. I'll never maintain my lead on Strip Passport at this rate.

But that's okay. In 2007, I lived and worked in Cairo for half a year. I stayed in Barcelona for several weeks. I started the year out with nowhere to live, in an East Village sublet for several weeks before leaving for Cairo. I ended the year on the same street I lived on before I sold my home, renting Yancey's comfortable home. I'm certainly happier as I say goodbye to 2007 than I was at the end of 2005 or 2006, though I'm still a little baffled at the What Now-edness of being over 40 with conflicting, confusing goals. A little off-my-game with the unfamiliar territory of staying home and keeping a normal schedule.

A look back at 2007:

  • I started the year out haranguing people who claim to be "travelers, not tourists." I contemplated my nomadic lifestyle and tried to accept that sometimes life has a way of evolving with or without your approval or cooperation.

  • The car that picked me up at the Cairo Airport broke down before it even got me to the hotel.

  • I had a ridiculous multi-part adventure finding an apartment in Zamalek. Then I gave it up in April, because I thought I was done with Cairo. By July, I was back—in a hotel and swimming through taxi farts— while wishing I'd kept the flat, which was owned by the Hot Landlord.

  • I discovered that Craig was in Cairo. We'd met in 2002 in New York. Running into Craig opened up an entire social scene for me, first in Cairo and later back home. Suddenly, I had a life and friends in Egypt, especially Craig and later Yasir.

  • While in Cairo, I went to Saqqara, Luxor, Dendara, Abydos, Dahshur (where I met Dr. Zahi Hawass), the Suez Canal, the Tentmaker's Bazaar, the Pyramids, Coptic Cairo, and Carrefour.

  • I got flashed in Cairo. A few days later, I was propositioned by a taxi driver.

  • On the writing front, I was interviewed on The Well, interviewed in a Lower East Side bookstore, interviewed for an ad agency DVD, contributed to a National Geographic book and a Rough Guides book.

  • On the employment front, I explained Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo to an Omani, commiserated with a jealous young Egyptian woman, then offended her with my (semi) dirty mouth, saved the office and risked jail, rescued the Muslim world from massive breasts, appeared in a work video and a TV piece, and explained cooties.

  • And finally, I had the pleasure of experiencing Ramadan in a Muslim country.

  • And what is on the menu for 2008? I only have goals for January so far. In January, I'm taking yoga and getting my book proposal finished and into the in-box of some agents. After that, it's anyone's guess.

    But 2008 is going to involve some new passport stamps, if I have to visit Caribbean countries on weekends just to maintain my Strip Passport lead over e. readicker-henderson, who added huge numbers of countries this past few years—and is off to Mongolia, Mali, and Namibia soon while I toil away in Herald Square—while I've been repeating myself.

    Sunday, December 30, 2007

    As If

    Someone clicked-through to my blog from Metacrawler. I went and checked it out. Ha! Look at #4.

    Friday, December 28, 2007

    Where There's Smoke, There's Fondue

    I found this 2003 photo on an external hard drive last night. It's Yancey and Michael Kraiger in my old apartment.

    It's a fine example of why Marie and cooking don't get along so well.

    Thursday, December 27, 2007

    Another Roadside Attraction

    Dinosaurland is a roadside attraction in White Post, Virginia, near Winchester. It features giant replicas of things like stegosaurus, triceratops, and a sixty-foot-long shark.

    I passed near Dinosaurland yesterday but didn't stop. In 2002, Turbo and I took a few photos in the parking lot. I went there once as a kid and loved it.

    In this first photo, I guess I was channeling the Jonathan Richman song "I'm a Little Dinosaur."

    Wednesday, December 26, 2007

    Country Roads

    Six hours to Mom's on Monday, six hours back today. Henry the 1990 Ford Taurus performed admirably, as we all expected him to. Though it iced on us in Pennsylvania. I doubt he was any happier about that than I was.

    Personal space is a wonderful thing, and at Mom's, I get to stay in the Fonzie apartment. That is, the mini-pad above the garage. The house wi-fi reaches the Fonzie apartment, so it's no problem for me to wake up early, make some coffee, and talk to Kuwait.

    Mom lives in the mountains of western Virginia, in a small resort town above the Shenandoah Valley. The surrounding area is populated by a mixture of nature lovers, rednecks, urban refugees, and rural gentry. The resort itself, called Bryce, has a golf course and a ski slope. It's a few hours away from Washington, DC.

    Driving down there triggers a lot of memories, both from when I was a kid and we'd visit places like Dinosaurland and Skyline Drive on family holidays, and from just a few years ago, when Turbo the Aussie and I took Henry through every back road we could find as we explored the region in 2002. Back then, we had Mom's cabin to ourselves as Mom and her husband Frank still lived in the DC suburbs at the time.

    This morning, I casually mentioned to Yasir that I was in the mountains. He demanded a photo. But I'm not the photographer of the family. Mom is. I snapped the shot above from my car, but if you want to see lovely photos of the area around Mom's house, better look at her blog instead of mine.

    Tuesday, December 25, 2007

    Christmas Hippo

    How could I have missed this?

    For longer than I have been alive, there has been a Christmas novelty song called "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas." No one told me! No Jon Babc0ck annual Christmas-mix CD ever featured it.

    I heard this song for the first time driving south yesterday on I-81 to my mother's house. Henry and I were both pretty tired by the time we got here—it's a six-hour drive—but there weren't any hiccups.

    Hoping for good-hippo-luck for the way home tomorrow too.

    Monday, December 24, 2007

    Urban Holiday

    Here's an ancient Christmas card of mine, one that I made when I lived on Avenue B.

    I've been meaning to update my cards with a shot of the Pulaski Skyway in snow ever since I moved back to JC, but I haven't found the right spot yet. I need a place within walking distance of home if it's snowing out. And without snow, there's nothing festive about the Pulaski Skyway.

    Saturday, December 22, 2007

    As Is

    I'm going out to Joe's Pub tonight, so I thought I'd dress in something nice.*

    After half an hour of changing clothes, I had to conclude that while it was a commendable goal, I don't actually own any nice clothes. Seven years of steady set changes across who-knows-how-many countries has resulted in one style: Frumpy modest.

    Those of you who have known me a long time are thinking "Nonsense! You have lots of clothes. What about that happening sperm-print dress you wore to your 30th birthday party on the Frying Pan?"

    Unfortunately, those stylish velvety dresses fit a younger woman, both in attitude and size. And whoa, are those skirts short! I bought my party dresses during the era of Ally McBeal. At 41, I am no longer so keen to bare my thighs in public.

    After surveying myself in long skirts, short skirts, boots, sweaters, and tights, I dejectedly changed into jeans. Sigh. If I were the sort of person to post an online personal, it would go something like this:

    AS-IS. SWF, 41, grumpy, smart-ass, silly, bizarrely out of touch with pop-culture items from large stretches of time between 2001-2008, smart but only vaguely interested in career or social status, offers a unique mix of fear-of-commitment laced with fear-of-abandonment. "What are YOU still doing here? WAIT, DON'T GO!" Past relationship achievements include coining the phrase "Who put the we in weekend."

    *Disclosure: A cute guy recently asked me if all I ever wore was jeans.

    Friday, December 21, 2007

    Rail Rules

    In summer, there's an unspoken rule of subway riding.

    If a train pulls in and a car is ghostly empty while all the others ones are bulging with people, don't get in. There's no air conditioning on that car.

    Other times of year, the only time a car is ghostly empty is when a homeless person has a terrible odor. But that's not too common.

    Tonight, I knew something was wrong with the Journal Square PATH pulled into Christopher Street station, and the car in front of me had empty seats. But it's not summer, so my instincts were slow. Or maybe it was holiday shopping that had dulled my reaction time. It registered slowly that all the passengers were piled into either end of the car in front of me, while the center was nearly empty.

    "Urm, that ain't right," I thought. I turned to run to the next car as the doors slid open.

    A pulsating mass of passengers poured out of the car at top speed. They raced to the next car. Damn! I'd never get on in time with that group. I'd miss the train!


    GHOST CAR. I jumped in, aiming myself towards the remaining huddle of passengers cowering at one end.

    So far, so good. But there's a catch. Huddle + empty seats can only equal one thing. I sniffed. P.U. Squinting to avoid the full effect, I peeked towards the car's center.

    Ah, drunk guy covered in yellow vomit.

    Nine minutes to home. I covered my nose with my coat and concentrated on nice things. Beagles. Mango and sticky rice. Ticklish feet. Yancey doing a happy dance when he sees or hears something he really likes.

    It worked this time. But I'll be more alert in the future.

    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Six White Boomers Redux

    It's that time of year again! When Santa goes around the world in his sleigh, and swaps his reindeer for six large male kangaroos at the Australian border. You can hear the song on YouTube.

    The one Christmas I spent in Oz was ridiculously hot, but I think it's a stretch to imagine Santa happening upon flying kangaroos. Can you imagine a white flying kangaroo with a red nose? As if!

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    No Crib for a Bed

    Baby Jesus must have had some rotten luck last year to get duct taped in this time around. But I can't work out why he's covered in plastic. 'Tis the season indeed!

    Sunday, December 16, 2007

    Birthday Greetings

    Yesterday was my mother's birthday.

    And Michael Kraiger's too. Though twelve years separates their respective entries into this world. (Don't worry, Mom's young, Kraiger's not old.)

    Happy birthday, Mom! Happy birthday, Michael Kraiger!

    Saturday, December 15, 2007

    Still More Unpacking

    I thought I'd managed to get rid of most of my useless old stuff back in the spring when I moved into Yancey's apartment and unpacked.

    But then yesterday, I opened the green plastic bins that were on top of the wardrobe.

    Inside were so many things that I just don't know what to do with. Like the wooden Appalachian dancing man I've had since I was a kid. Incredible Hulk toilet paper. A stained glass kookaburra windchime that Turbo, the ex circa 2002-2003 had gotten custom-made for me. The Casio VL-Tone from 1981. And reel-to-reel tapes of the radio newscasts I worked on in college.

    I haven't ruled out retiring the kookaburra, but the rest is going back into the box. Except the reel-to-reel tapes. It's time for us to part ways.

    After I finish with the wardrobe and bins, I still have an entire garage to unpack. It never ends.

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    Cute but Stinky

    I'm working on an Antarctica piece for Tim Leffel's Perceptive Travel website.

    And so far, it isn't doing what I want it to do. I'm still wrangling. Maybe tomorrow it will cooperate.

    But as I was bemoaning my situation, my pal Edward (last seen gloating that I hadn't been to South Georgia and he had) reminded me of a detail I'd forgotten.

    "Don't forget the stink of the penguins."

    Oh yeah. That's right. Penguins hang out together and poop on the rocks. When you have a big group of penguins, you have a big penguin poop smell.

    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    Street Food

    "Marie, come to the food truck with me!"

    Roberta had me stumped last night. I'd thought she'd meant the lunch truck that sits outside the construction site during the day. But it was dinner time.

    "It's across the street. I'm not sure what it's about... come with me."

    I couldn't. I already had dinner plans. She went alone. Then, an e-mail.

    "I went to the cart. It's delicious."

    Roberta—who is borderline classy—liked food off a truck? This I had to check out. I went to the food truck after work tonight.

    Yum! This isn't the Scooby hot dog truck, or Mr. Softee. It's not even a taco truck. It's "accessible gourmet" from an upscale restaurant in Paulus Hook. The food is billed as organic and locally grown.

    And it's right across the street on Hamilton Park, from 6-8 Monday to Friday.

    I'm so spoiled by convenience. I may never cook again.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Winter Chill

    I go to great lengths to avoid winter. In the last decade, I've only been here in the northeastern US for three winters. I'm about to tough out a fourth.

    2007 - Cairo
    2006 - Kuwait
    2005 - JC
    2004 - JC
    2003 - Australia
    2002 - Australia
    2001 - Indonesia
    2000 - Bali, Java, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
    1999 - NYC
    1998 - India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan

    Some people don't mind the cold. I'm not one of those people.

    The apartment I'm in right now is freezing most nights. It has electric baseboard heat in one room, and a big hotel-style blower in another room. That's it for the heat. Yancey, who owns the apartment, was good-natured about it and just piled on more sweaters when he lived there. Unlike him, I complain.

    My old condo had no insulation. None. They didn't have fiberglass when it was built, sometime in the early 1900s. Roberta, Al, Michael Kraiger, and I insulated it. We insulated Roberta's place at the same time. We rented a blower and bought bales of insulation from Lowe's. We started out trying to carve neat holes in the plaster with a hole saw, but that wore down the blade. In the end, Al developed a method called "beat the hell out of the plaster with a hammer." It was effective. After that, the old apartment was toasty. I hope the new owners appreciate it.

    Saturday, December 08, 2007

    Negative Scanning

    Back in the spring, I bought a new flatbed scanner. I wanted one that could scan my old negatives and slides as well as whatever scraps of paper I throw on it.

    I did some research. Seems that flatbed scanners are terrible for negative scanning. But there was one, the Epson Perfection 4990 Photo, that was borderline-all-right. If I really want good-quality negative scans, I needed to buy a dedicated film scanner, like the Minolta Dimage. But a dedicated film scanner doesn't scan scraps of paper, and I could only buy one.

    Today I used the negative holders and scanned some photos of Palmyra, Syria. Results were pretty "eh." I need to figure out how to get rid of dust and use the settings correctly. Maybe that will help.

    Next time, I'll try the slide holder.

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    The Rational a Rationale for Rationalizing

    I caught myself cheating today. At the gym, while the attendant was in the toilet.

    I was skipping recovery stations between machines.

    How stupid is that? Like I'm at the gym for the good of the woman behind the counter instead of myself.

    But in my defense, I was in a hurry. I had to get to the first showing of 'The Golden Compass" on opening day. I loved the books, which Joey Cavalieri recommended to me after Louise Simonson suggested them to him.

    I knew going in that there was no way the movie could visually capture Philip Pullman's prose the same way my imagination did. But it was a valiant, engaging attempt. Nothing like an armored bear battle to fill an afternoon of playing hooky from paperwork.

    Seems some are upset at the anti-organized-religion message of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, of which "The Golden Compass" is Part 1. Yeah, and Aslan is just a friendly lion. Get over it, people, and let yourself enjoy the escapism.

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Time Ain't Nothing

    Remember last spring when the facial woman said I had "premenopausal" skin?

    Now this: I have a wonderful hair colorist, a color student named Paula at a high-end Manhattan salon. Color with students is practically free in New York and I've been with her since her first lessons two years ago. She's about to graduate and I think this time I'll graduate too. I've been the guinea pig for four colorists at the same salon for the past five years. And now that I have an income and all, I'm sticking with Paula when she is licensed.

    Yesterday, Paula sweetly skewered my delight with the rich tones she'd just put into my roots.

    "The gray is more stubborn this time. Next time we'll have to use double-pigment."


    Tuesday, December 04, 2007


    Steve Buccellato and I are working on a sequential graphic story of one of my Cairo adventures. (That means comic book story, kids!)

    My own travel stories have been illustrated by Don, Kevin, and Jessica. These stories make me giddily happy, because they combine my travels, writing, and comics—all the things I spend most of my waking hours on.

    A long, long time ago—some time between dinosaurs and iPods—I self-published an anthology of comic book stories about growing up. I have several hundred copies of Scorched Birth in my garage. These aren't travel stories. It was my first foray into non-superhero comics. Reading my short story at the beginning of the book, which is kind of personal, I get a little embarrassed. I wonder if I'll feel that way about Curse of the Hippo in future years.

    Anyone who wants a copy of Scorched Birth--and who lives in the US--should drop me a line by Friday (Dec. 7) with your name and address. marie at mariejavins dotcom. I'll send you a copy right away, no charge. Just think of it as helping me clean out the garage.

    Sunday, December 02, 2007

    Day Job

    I'm filling out a questionnaire for a website about artists in day jobs.*

    Lots of artists and writers have day jobs. Some of them suck, while others aren't so bad. Ideally, you get health insurance. I'm wondering why I claim to be a writer with a comic book editor job on the side, instead of a comic book editor who dabbles in writing, when my job takes up ninety percent of my working time (the rest being taken up by procrastinating on the Internet). I guess I lie to myself sometimes.

    But I'm giggling gleefully as I fill it out, because how many people can say this?

    Day job: Editor in Chief for a comic book company headquartered in Kuwait with offices in Cairo and Manhattan.

    I'm struggling with the question of what three people I'd like to read my work. Oprah is the easy one, the 200 points just for spelling my name right. Who else would I want to read my books?

    *apologies to Otis Ball. He knows why.

    Friday, November 30, 2007

    Friends Like These

    A friend went to Antarctica and South Georgia last year on the Nordnorge—the same ship that picked up the passengers from the sinking M/S Explorer. When I went, I'd gone only on the Antarctica itinerary with GAP, not on the extended version. Probably because I was paying for it out of my own pocket while my friend was on a junket.

    I have a minor Endurance/Shackleton obsession, so my friend kindly bought and sent me this postcard of Shackleton's grave on South Georgia Island.

    Which was wonderful of him, but it would be a little more wonderful if he hadn't written on it: "I've been here and you haven't. Ha."

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007


    I've packed my paperback copy of Sally Watson's book "Jade" to take to work today.

    It's for Kraiger to give to his 9-year-old daughter.

    I was about 9 when I read this book and I loved it. I used to check it out over and over from the library, devouring it and imagining being the heroine.

    Jade is a teenager in colonial Virginia. She is rebellious and refuses to live by society's repressive rules for girls. She ends up becoming a pirate and joining the ship of famous female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read. This was utterly believable to me at the time. Of course a young girl would be a fencing expert, join the pirates, and only fight to free slaves. What could be more credible than that? And what a great fantasy for a 9-year-old girl!

    Reading it now, I have to laugh at Jade's sneering at boys and her brash attitude. "He was a boy, and of the ruling class and race, and everything was to his advantage. Oh, I hate men!"

    This made perfect sense to 9-year-old Marie, who had no trouble at all envisioning herself fighting slavers with a pirate sword.

    I'm sure it will make sense to Kraiger's kid too.

    Monday, November 26, 2007

    Things Are Looking Up

    This is my fortune from 2001, from a Wat Po (Bangkok) numerologist who gave me nearly identical fortunes a year apart.

    He may or may not have some insight into the future, but at least he has a system. Looking at the way he's written the numbers, it looks like 37 and 38 were special, and 39-41 were bunched together for a reason. Maybe that reason was that those years sucked. 42 is looking up.

    He told me some things that were just plain wrong: I am spiritual. I am a good singer. He also told me I was going to be famous in my own country "as a writer," will live into my eighties, will have a car accident at 43, will be successful in business, like to travel, and will have two children.

    I'm guessing he's a bit hit-or-miss on a few things, but I'm game to go with "like to travel." Amazing that he could pick up on that, no?

    Sunday, November 25, 2007

    Fun & Games with Greyhound

    "No, I understand what you are saying."

    Last night, I was talking to a bright-eyed, earnest young Greyhound bus lines employee in the Washington DC bus station.

    "You are saying that although we all have tickets for the 7:15 p.m. Greyhound bus, we will not get on a bus until 10 p.m., and even then maybe we won't. I understand perfectly what you are saying. But here is what I am saying. I have a ticket. Look, it says 7:15 p.m. I was here early. So were all these people. All 300 of us have tickets for the 7:15 p.m. bus which you are saying has only ten seats. What I am saying is that I have a ticket and I want to go home."

    Exasperated, with the kind of look an airline employee gives to an uncooperative passenger that is about to be approached by security, the lovely young woman responded with an eye-roll, as if she were addressing a moron.

    "If you pay an additional five dollars, you'll get priority seating on the ten o'clock bus," she chirped.

    Eff that, I want to be halfway through with the New Jersey Turnpike by ten o'clock.

    There was a minor eruption occurring around me. I wasn't the only one who wanted to get to New York.

    "If you can't honor my ticket, can I get my money back?" I wanted to get out of there and go to the train station before these other 290 people got there, especially given that in a minute, the young worker likely would need security.

    Why on earth would you sell 300 tickets for a bus with ten vacant seats? Is Greyhound run by idiots?

    "You can get a refund but there is a 20 percent penalty. The bus is first-come, first-served."

    I subdued my natural inclination to tell her that's a stupid policy and ducked out of the crowd-of-fury as the shrieking reached fever-pitch. Let the masses try to argue the madness of policy with Ms. Logic-Is-Not-My-Middle-Name. I was headed to Customer Service.

    I'd thought myself clever when I'd discovered that the Greyhound was the same price as the Chinatown buses. Only $35 round-trip. Well, I can admit I was wrong. Next time I'm taking an independent coach. Maybe even the one with on-board wi-fi. I'd only gone down to DC for the day, to meet my family for a post-Thanksgiving meal. The outgoing trip had run 20 minutes behind. I'd thought that was inconvenient. So was having to catch the 5:45 a.m. World Trade Center PATH train since trains run so rarely on weekend early mornings.

    But this! Outrage.

    I tried to calmly address the woman behind the counter.

    "I have this ticket for 7:15 p.m. I was here early. I want to go to New York, and now they are saying the next bus which might have room is at ten. Is there some other bus, to Newark or Philadelphia?"

    The ticket agent looked at me like I was crazy. She looked at the steaming mass-of-fury that had lined up behind me.

    "Whoever told you that is wrong. Get back in line. Other buses are coming."


    About 20 minutes later, I boarded the fourth 7:15 p.m. bus to New York and off we went, roaring towards the Turnpike.

    Friday, November 23, 2007

    Sinking Ship

    The M/S Explorer—the Little Red Ship—is sinking, or perhaps has already sunk. Near Antarctica.

    That's GAP's ship! I went on the inaugural GAP Antarctica expedition, which revolutionized the region for backpackers and budget travelers. That was before they bought the Explorer, so I wasn't actually on this ship. My expedition was on a rent-a-ship, a cruise run by Quark Expeditions.

    According to my GAP brochure, this should have been right after the South Georgia section of the "Spirit of Shackleton" itinerary, which ends on Nov. 29. So the tourists would have been following in the footsteps of Shackleton, heading from South Georgia to Antarctica.

    Astute readers familiar with the story of Shackleton will remember that he too lost his ship.

    GAP does strive for accuracy.

    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    Thanksgiving to Remember

    Some of my favorite non-traditional Thanksgivings:

    -In 2001, I was thrilled to have a chicken dinner on a sleeper train from Aswan to Cairo. (It was Ramadan and I'd been in sub-Saharan Africa for months prior.)

    -In 2004, the best I could come up with in Barcelona was a chicken dinner at IKEA.

    -In 2005, my mother, sister, and I went to see the new Johnny Cash movie for Thanksgiving.

    And in 2007, after a fantastic dinner with friends at Old Devil Moon, Michael Kraiger and I went to see Blade Runner.

    Monday, November 19, 2007

    Let's Learn Arabic!

    Yasir's blog made me laugh yesterday. He found a warning sign in Cairo that said "MANHOLE" in English. Then above it were Arabic letters that spelled out the same word--not whatever the translation would be of the word "MANHOLE."

    Maybe there isn't a translation. Like the names of our comics. We just translate them literally. Except the X in X-Men. There's no X in Arabic so we just write the English letter.

    Let's take a look. You can learn some Arabic letters too. Remember to read right-to-left and don't worry about the missing vowels. Think of it phonetically, "N" sounds like "EN," and "L" sounds like "EL."

    Sunday, November 18, 2007

    More Lost in Translation Moments

    Today's e-mail from an editor/translator in Egypt:

    "Dear Marie, in Cartoon Network magazine in Powerpuff Girls, the Rowdyruff Boys are worried about cooties. Marie, please, what is a cootie?"

    Eww, girl (boy) germs! That's universal if you are under the age of 8. A bit tougher to explain to a woman in her early twenties.

    Saturday, November 17, 2007

    Kampala Looks Like Peace

    Last night I saw a marvelous movie, a documentary called War/Dance.

    In 2005, a group of kids from a primary school in Northern Uganda went to a national dance competition in Kampala. Which in and of itself may leave you going "So?"

    But if you've been reading this blog for a few years, you might recall me referring to the situation north of Murchison Falls. Or maybe you've read of the peace negotiations happening between the LRA ("Lord's Resistance Army") and the Ugandan government. You might remember when a Ugandan friend's father lost his life to the LRA, or when the owner of the lodge at the center of the park I was staying in was shot by rebels. Both of these events also occurred in 2005.

    One striking thing about War/Dance is how adeptly it contrasts brilliant green landscapes and gorgeous sunsets with tales of brutality, murder, and abduction. Night is when the LRA strikes, and so the sunset—such an innocuous thing of beauty to us—is a herald of yet another night of fear to villagers in rebel-harassed regions. The closest the filmmakers get to explaining the rebel's actions is when one of the kids goes to interview an imprisoned rebel. The kid is looking for his abducted brother, but he cannot stop himself from asking "Why?"

    Another contrast is between the kids in their zombie-like states when they talk about the atrocities they've seen versus their huge smiles as they perform. Their instructors force them to smile. "Mood! Mood! Mood!" And they do smile, and then their moods become real, bringing these victims of trauma back to life, leaving behind their despair. Emotions long suppressed bubble up. One even says that he is "excited to see what peace looks like" as they set off for Kampala.

    The challenges these kids have faced perhaps make their anxiety about the competition easier to endure, but also encourages them to work harder. They have more to prove.

    And they succeed. They all pile onto the back of Isuzu trucks, travel under military escort down red-dirt roads towards the Ugandan capital, and they perform beautifully, triumphantly, at the National Theatre in front of their skeptical southern counterparts.

    Their point?

    Northern Uganda is not just about war. There are people there too, people living their lives and aspiring to dreams in spite of nightly terror. They may be living in fear, but they are not only about fear. They too can dance, live, and marvel at the sight of sand on the shores of Lake Victoria. The children return home, changed but not changed, going back to the same situations they left behind. But they also have hope and ambition. War/Dance is based in a tragic environment, but ultimately it's an extraordinarily hopeful film.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Elephant Safari

    So why exactly was I riding elephants in Nepal in the last entry?

    It was an elephant-back safari in Nepal, with the intended purpose of searching for rhinos.

    This is the most marvelous way of seeing rhinos. I've seen them on walking safaris (terrifying but exhilarating), vehicle safaris, and from benches near waterholes. But the best way of seeing a rhino is from the back of an elephant.

    The rhino is apparently not too terribly clever, and when he sees and elephant, he thinks "Hey, an elephant. That's normal." He doesn't notice people sitting on top of the elephant. So you can get really close to the rhinos and they don't even care that you're there.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007

    A Lesson in Humility

    While on the topic of elephants, there is a right way and a wrong way to board an elephant.

    In the photo above, these elephant riders in Nepal are cleverly using an "elephant embarkation platform" for their elephant embarking and disembarking needs.

    Quite a sensible approach.

    But here, this foolish woman (um, me... mortified) is stuck on top of the elephant's trunk during a bareback riding experiment with Nikki. She'd been bareback on Indian elephants loads of times so she said "Join me, it's easy."

    "Just put one foot here where he's hooked his trunk, and he'll swing you up here with me."

    It did not really work out that way. How embarrassing.

    Monday, November 12, 2007

    Are the Elephants Friendly in Burundi?

    My pal Craig has put up his Burundi photos here and here and here. Also here and here. Have I mentioned lately how much I wish I had gone on that trip? I mean aside from the first ten times.

    Meanwhile, I pressured Stuart to make a Dr. Livingstone joke in one of our comics, which takes place in Zimbabwe. But I take no responsibility for the superheroine petting a wild African elephant at the end of the story. Maybe I should add a line. "Look, this one is friendly!" "Maybe it's responding to the empathy inherent in your super-light power! Elephants are wild animals and you should never approach them, missy."

    Just a quick reminder as my civic duty: I don't care what you do in India or Nepal, but when in Africa, DO NOT PET THE ELEPHANTS.

    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    Last Look at Oz (No More Wallabies!)

    I was the lucky recipient of extraordinarily good luck on two fronts during my most active travel years.

    On the peace front, I was lucky enough to go through Pakistan and Iran in 1998. Through Zimbabwe before the crisis got truly bad. Through Sudan at a time of relative calm. Through East Timor post-war, as one of the first tourists.

    On the prosperity front, the US dollar was at unprecedented heights when I went around the world. When I lived in Australia, I got almost double for every dollar I spent.

    Which is why I was able to splurge on things like catching a helicopter back from a snorkeling excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.

    Visiting the giant pineapple was even cheaper.

    Saturday, November 10, 2007

    Wallaby Week: Saturday

    Had enough wallabies yet?

    While you've been subjected to mini-kangaroos, I've spoken to a pal's comic book class at School of Visual Arts, moved seven percent of my savings out of dollars, avoided going to the gym twice, had an annual (insured) physical, and shared hummous with other perplexed expat-returnees. "What do we do now?" No one ever has an answer.

    I'm a better expat than I am home-country-resident. As an expat, life feels like a glamorous adventure. But coming home—after the first week in which you are bizarrely thrilled with things like automatic washing machines—is returning to problems you may have tried to ignore and the mundane daily routines. It's like culture shock in reverse. I've always said coming home is the second hardest part of long-term trips abroad.

    The first hardest part is the colossal organizing feat that one must execute prior to departure. Or at least it used to be. These days, I can do that part in my sleep. But I'll never master the art of seamlessly inserting myself back into normal life.

    Friday, November 09, 2007

    Wallaby Week: Friday

    Abby is looking disinterested and a little tough in this shot.

    An older woman looked pretty tough today at the bus stop. I was hanging back, not wanting to cut in front of the line of people boarding the crosstown bus on 14th Street. She noticed my hesitation, then firmly grabbed me by the shoulders and steered me into line and aboard the bus, chortling at my surprise.

    Thursday, November 08, 2007

    Wallaby Week: Thursday

    I came home late from Tim Leffel's Hungarian wine tasting event (where I ran into Max and Kent as well as Kelly) and forgot to post my Wednesday Wallaby! Here's Abby, a day late.

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    Wallaby Week: Tuesday

    Abby is looking peeved that I forgot to leave food on her plate.

    Oh, and I was on TV for about 2.5 seconds this morning.

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    Wallaby Week: Monday

    After going through a lot of books on Australian animals, I decided that Abby must be a "swamp wallaby." Notice her handsome "swampee" snout!

    In other news, the hijinks on the PATH train continue. Last week, my shoe nearly went to JC without me. Today, the train was so packed that I could barely squeeze onto the car. My hood got caught in the door. I had to grab and pull furiously to free my hood, and when I suddenly succeeded, I accidentally socked myself in the jaw. In front of a hundred or so people.

    Which was bad enough, but to make it even worse, I have a cold, so I sneezed in a crowded train. The air was thick with disapproval.

    Much nicer to think of wallabies. Their sneezes are cute.

    Sunday, November 04, 2007

    Wallaby Week: Sunday

    It's Wallaby Week!

    As some of you know, I used to live in rural Australia. This was for parts of 2002 and 2003. I couldn't stay for more than three months at a time due to visa issues.

    While in northern NSW at Turbo's place, I habituated a wallaby named Abby. (Her boyfriend was Wally and her kid was Joey. Not sure what we were going to do next season. Josephine?) I fed Abby mangoes and guinea pig food.

    We also had a family of kookaburras that we fed raw meat to, but that was Turbo's project. The wallaby project was mine.

    In the above photo, Abby is nibbling a pulpy mango. Yum!

    Saturday, November 03, 2007

    New Pakistan Album

    General Musharraf of Pakistan announced a state of emergency today.

    I can't claim to understand all the nuances of the issues in Pakistan. This country is not at war, but it wasn't the calmest place in 1998 when I went through it in a Dragoman truck, on an 8-week overland trip called "The Great Asian Journey." There were plenty of security problems then, and that was before 9/11.

    Terror wars, drug wars, the former British Empire, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan--this is right next door to the front lines. Throw in economic, educational, urban vs. rural, and religious disparities. Mix with government trying to strike a balance between domestic factions and international demands and it gets complicated indeed.

    I was inspired to scan in some of my Pakistan photos this morning, since I assume it's off-limits for touring for now. Have a look.

    Thursday, November 01, 2007

    Happy Mileage Day

    Henry the 1990 Ford Taurus had a big event occur last weekend.

    His odometer turned over to 150,000 miles.

    Turbo and I acquired Henry in Torrance, California, for a thousand dollars on my birthday in April, 2002. Henry had been a fleet car and had new tires, a sun-bleached matte finish, and 100,000 miles on him. Why did we get a Taurus? Because when buying a used car, picking one according to your zodiac sign is as reliable a method as any. That and I had heard somewhere that old Tauruses were reliable. Or maybe that was my opinion of myself. We called the seller in Torrance from Don's house in West L.A. And when we saw Henry and heard how he purred and, uh, worked and stuff, it was love at first sight.

    Henry does a lot of sitting in my single-car garage for months on end these days. I don't own my own home, but I bought a house for my car.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007

    Anatomy of a Book Proposal

    I've started working seriously—well, not that seriously, but I'm picking at it—on my book proposal for CURSE OF THE HIPPO.

    Book proposal writing is no fun. My last one took months and was over 40 pages long. But I'm better at it now and I already know how to write one, so it's going faster this time.

    Here's the basic structure of a non-fiction book proposal:


    You can rearrange the elements a bit but don't stray too far from the basic setup.

    I was tinkering with the MARKETING AND PROMOTIONS section last night. That's where you explain why your book is needed, why people will buy it, how it can be pitched, and how it could be successfully promoted.

    And I realized I was a bit short on gimmicks this time 'round. Last time, I pulled out all the stops. Solo woman circumnavigates the world live on the internet. I threw in the Ethiopian truck accident, being harassed on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, and being shaken down by the Uzbekistan police in the Tashkent subway for extra credit. Okay, I didn't plan that stuff but it helped.

    But this time there is no quest, no manufactured excuse for travel. No "Because it's there." Nothing trite that I can glibly trot out and state was my mission, no pogo stick up Mt. Fuji for me, as I first fled my own demons from Namibia to Cape Town to Uganda, then took shelter in comic books in Kuwait, and finally went to Cairo for no particular reason aside from the head office asked nicely.

    And I ended up starting the marketing section with this. Which will do nicely.

      Since the dawn of time, men and women have traveled the world for fame, fortune, and to satisfy their curiosity. People also travel for other, less conventional, but no less compelling reasons: a fascination with a person or place, to settle a bet, and for what can only be called whimsy.

      -Library Journal 12/15/06

    And then there are those who travel out of desperation, taking jobs in the Arabian Gulf once the money, love, and biological clock has run out.

    Monday, October 29, 2007

    Might As Well Smoke

    CAIRO, Oct 19 (IPS/IFEJ) - Air pollution is so bad in Cairo that living in the sprawling city of 18 million residents is said to be akin to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. According to the World Health Organisation, the average Cairene ingests more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution a day.



    Saturday, October 27, 2007

    What Exactly Does a Dik-Dik Sound Like?

    My blog got a mysterious number of hits on Wednesday by people looking for "dik-dik on a stick." A little sleuthing revealed that the dik-dik on a stick photo mocked up by Steve had total strangers wondering what dik-dik tastes like.

    Which sounds obscene. But I promise it is not.

    Even stranger: The Google ads showing at the top at the time promised "dik-dik ringtones." What the hell is a dik-dik ringtone?

    Friday, October 26, 2007

    Go Ro!

    My pal Roberta has been granted an expense-paid month-long residency at the largest international artist and writer studio residency program in the United States. This is courtesy the Dodge Foundation.

    Ro gets discouraged sometimes at being an artist in a world where it's hard to make a living at it, the same way I frequently wallow in despair over trying to make money as a writer. This is great news about the grant to Ro.

    Yay Ro! Here she is with her masterpiece done in electrical tape on a garage door.

    Thursday, October 25, 2007

    Stalking the Wild Small Antelope

    "Ix-nay on the..." What? I can't remember what I was talking about in these goofy little work web videos. It was unfortunately just those of us in the New York office in June, so you won't see Captain M or Mr. Fixit or my pals from the Cairo or Kuwait offices. I'd gone sleeveless that day and had to put on a thick winter sweater out of respect to our audience.

    The first video is kind of funny, but to see me truly making a fool of myself, be sure to click on the menu bar labelled "group dynamics" and choose my name.

    Given the bit at the end of the me segment, I have a feeling the ix-nay was in reference to me saying the word dik-dik onscreen.

    Here on my blog I can say it all I want. Dik-dik! DIK-DIK! DIK-DIK!

    Tuesday, October 23, 2007

    Keeps Me Up at Night Too

    My train ride to work takes about 17 minutes.

    Normally, it annoys me. That's 17 minutes too long.

    But for the last few days, it's been pissing me off because it's too short. Too short for me to finish reading "Who Hates Whom" by pudu-aficionado Bob Harris. It's subtitled "Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide."

    This book is just wonderful. Clear, conversational, and hilarious. What's that? Funny? How can a book describing civil wars, genocide, and power-mad dictators be funny?

    But somehow it is. And somehow, in spite of describing bleak situations from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka, from Somalia to Haiti, somehow Bob Harris makes the world out to be kind of a hopeful place. Or at least a place with a good sense of humor. After all, how bad can a place be where one of the Guineas was once called Poo?

    Monday, October 22, 2007

    Alternate Energy

    I'm trying a little experiment. Let's call it sustainable power on a micro-scale.

    It's a tiny solar charger that supposedly is going to charge my mobile phone.* And my iPod too.

    I realize my solar charger is not going to save the world or stop global warming, but it's kind of exciting. Of course, I can't try out my new toy right now. It's dark out. The down side of being sustainable.

    This could be useful If I ever end up living somewhere without electricity again. Like New York City on a hot summer day.

    *Don't laugh at my cheap prepaid phone. Twenty bucks every three months and I can read my e-mail on it, so there.