Monday, June 28

The best part of being back

I was planning once a blog post to practice answers to questions I could expect about this past year upon my return.  How was your year?  What was your favorite part?  Your least favorite part?  Would you do it again?  In the two weeks I've been back now, those questions have not yet been posed to me.  Okay, maybe by a few close relatives, but that's it. 

Conversations about the past year have proceeded along two paths.  If fellow conversant was aware of my most recent whereabouts, their first question was "Are you glad to be back?" or something on similar lines.  If fellow conversant was not aware of my activities, they would ask about how I've been since we last saw one another.  Once Kenya and Indonesia came up in my response, they would ask "Are you glad to be back?" or something on similar lines.

In both situations, my reply was the same: "Yeah, life is easy again."  It still surprises me to hear this.  It was not some specific American pleasure.  My daydreams weren't of hopping shows all afternoon at a multiplex or a two-egg omelette filled with sautéed, fine diced celery and onions.  When we bought the tickets and the flight out was temporally nearer than the flight in, when the Children's Office demanded another bribe, when KPLC cut the power, when I was exhausted beyond measure, my only wish was for the easy life in American again.

I guess the answer has surprised people.  More than a few have paused before pushing on, and I've had once to fill in the following explanation to bring the talk back to pace.  I worked hard this past year.  My days in Nakuru started at 5:30 in the morning when I would wake up the boys and prepare them for school.  Assuming there was no trouble in giving out pens and exercise books and no one was sick, the last of them would leave a little after 7.  I would start my computer and the Internet at this time to check for priority email before a director's meeting to discuss the day ahead.  Most days I would have to leave the center for a few hours to meet with school teachers or withdraw money from the bank or visit our lawyer.  When I got back, normally around lunchtime, I would still have to complete a minimum of four hours of online work, stuff like volunteer recruitment, newsletter and media, all the behind-the-scenes work necessary to keep the Foundation a viable international organization.  By the time those hours were done, the rest of the children had come back, and there was no rest in tutoring, disciplining, monitoring, playing with them until 8 when we locked them in their dorms.  I would have an hour break before walking by the dorms once more to make sure lights out was observed.  I was well exhausted by then.  No problem I was working over seventy hours every week.

With no children living at the Bali center and only a computer class or two to teach in the afternoons, life in Indonesia was easier.  I devoted most of my hours then to online work and could actually keep to the required eight a day.  Not that the stress was much better.  Something was always going wrong somewhere.  A center hadn't budgeted appropriately and needed more money for some emergency.  Not enough new director applications were coming in.  Someone didn't follow protocol in contacting sponsors.  Always something.  If there was not some fire that needed extinction, there was another fire that needed ignition.  By that time I was one of the senior volunteers with the Foundation and carried a lot of responsibility to deal with these.  Feeling as though the whole thing is going to come down around your ears without immediate action on your part is not the greatest thing for your emotional health.

Maybe those I speak with imagine life in the developing world as something more relaxed and outside the frenzy that so many Americans exist in.  Perhaps they imagine Kenyan days spent on the savanna from sunrise to sunset and Indonesian weeks with spare hours not spent on the beach or in the ocean.  Within such a dream, the only joy they can imagine in coming back is a return to modern conveniences: high-pressure shower heads with reliable hot water, flush toilets, air conditioning and all the rest.  Yeah, those things are nice, and I certainly did miss them when the water in Kenya only ran three out of four days or when I was grasping with my fingertips at the cross bar on the door to keep my balance over the pit toilet, but I got used to them.  They weren't that big of a deal after a month or two.

Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning that concentration camp prisoners who once slept in fine beds with only their wives soon adapted to sharing slats with as many as seven others, many of them snoring, under a single thin blanket.  The centers were no death camps, and I adapted as well.  Spend too much time in a nation where people can convince themselves that a decision with regard to the design and material of their flatware is of importance and you can forget what you really need.  But I will always take the country where more people have to make that choice than whether to pay the rent or for groceries that week.

Friday, June 25

Photographing Africa

I liked this piece by David Campbell, calling for alternative stories and pictures of Africa, when I first read it, and visited his blog Imagining Famine where he develops the idea from day to day.  I think he's right, for one thing.  There are pretty strict expectations when it comes to African photographs.  If the pictures deal neither with the humanitarian issues of poverty, famine and civil war nor with the tourist spectacles of nature and wildlife, they are something of a shock and take a moment to register as truly African.  To see pictures of Sudan Premier League's Al-Khartoum at practice is jarring in the same sense as seeing pictures of LeBron James hosting a barbeque.  With some thought you can recognize that these are not ridiculous images.  They do make a certain amount of sense.  Of course the Sudanese like to kick balls into nets as much as the rest of the world and surely James needs to eat, but these are not the first images we expect from either.  In calling for a conscious effort to explore new photographic themes in Africa and help people unconsciously realize that the continent and its 53 nations have an existence beyond the 'famines and coups' storyline, I think Campbell's intentions and hopes are good.

Unfortunately I really can't see how his approach is much less patronizing than the stereotypes he refutes.  It still depends upon us treating the Africans in the appropriate manner.  Where is the African agency in this?  We can throw planes full of Americans into western Europe and the pictures they bring back will not slide far beyond them and their families at the base of the Eiffel Tower or them straining to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Do we honestly think here, though, that these are the totality of France and Italy?  No, and it's not because Americans are doing such a great job of portraying them in their cultural fullness in Hollywood blockbusters and popular fiction.  It's because they promote themselves.  They're not waiting for Americans to treat them with dignity and tell their stories.  Their writers, filmmakers, singers, musicians, dancers, sculptors, painters, bloggers, journalists, photographers and all the rest are already doing it and have been for decades and centuries.  The answer to African stereotypes by the West is not further attempts by the West to get it right but an African response.  Kenyans telling Kenyan stories, Nigerians taking Nigerian pictures and Zambians writing Zambian songs.

Like I began, I think Campbell is right.  There is a standard plotline to African stories throughout the West that should be exposed for how shallow and incomplete it is at describing the depth and breadth and complexity of an entire continent.  The appropriate response, though, is not, necessarily, to take new and different pictures but to support those Africans already doing it.  Read Wizard of the Crow.  Listen to a Tumi Molekane album.  Make a global market for African artists and allow them to bring produce more and share more still with the rest of the world.

My just voiced complaints withstanding, should you like to see some of these alternative visual stories of Kenya and its neighbors to the north, west, south and beyond, check out African Lens.  It has some good stuff.

Tuesday, June 22

Back in the States

There was a week in Montana immediately after flying in to America, but now I am back in Minnesota, my home before Nakuru and Spokane before that. It's nice. I enjoy being new places and discovering the new things in them, but it is good to return to the familiar and see how it has changed, what has been built, what has been destroyed, what has opened, what has moved, what has closed and all the rest that is different after eighteen months.

It's nice to be back in the States, too, and see how it has changed in the past year. It's hard to comprehend a year away from a place especially when it feels as brief as this past one. I've tried to give it some context by imagining all the things that I have missed. A season of Gonzaga basketball. The Saints' Super Bowl victory. The Tiger Woods scandal. The emergence of Justin Bieber. The release of Lady Gaga's "Telephone." The series finales of LOST and 24. The first weeks of the Gulf oil spill. The election of Scott Brown and the rise of the Tea Party. John Paul Stevens' retirement from and Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court. The reports on Fr. Murphy's abuse of deaf children and the Church's failure to act. With the Internet, it has been a smoother return as none are surprises, but it remains strange to only be told that they are happening and that they are important. It's like a junior high English teacher trying to teach transitive verbs and subjective pronouns. You may admit they exist but seeing how they matter is another thing entirely. Most of these may not be world altering events, but at some point, they did matter and became part of the cultural consciousness, a consciousness that I missed.

Of course, it's not just the country that has changed. A lot remains the same here after just a year, but I see it differently after my time on Nakuru's outskirts and during trips into Pokot. Like physical space. Yes, my first days back were spent in Montana where there are approximately six people per square mile, but please, consider the strip mall. A shopping complex whose retail space is rivaled by that of the park lot. Absolutely ridiculous. Consider the traditional mall. The halls between RadioShack and Bath & Body Works are wider than Balinese and Kenyan highways. I have been in American closets larger than clothing shops in Nairobi.

Consider, too, the sense of that space. Bali, as a volcanic island, has beaches at the bases of mountains, and Kenya has the expanse of the Rift Valley, but these landscapes are taken as a given. Construction takes place within the boundaries set by these natural features. Rice grows in terraces alongside the Balinese mountain sides. Farms are on an incline along the Rift Valley's walls. In America, though, the land is changed to suit our needs. Hills are built for freeway interchanges, hills leveled for future neighborhoods and tons of earth shifted for the purposes of forming land better suited to knocking a white ball into a distant hole. Urban American land is whatever we want it to be.

As long ago as my months in Munich, I learned that it was a good idea to keep private English conversations quiet. It was a strong bet that someone within hearing on the U-Bahn could speak English fluently. While those odds are not quite the same in Kenya or Bali, they are good enough to keep it quiet still and speak quickly with an accent. English fluency is even higher in America, but it is has taken me aback to realize that again I can understand people's conversations in restaurants and in the halls. Feel like an awful eavesdropper now when I catch even a single phrase in passing.

And no one notices when the white guy goes by. It's good to be back.

Monday, June 14

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Wedding

Sixteen years previous I attended my first wedding and reception. It was for my mother's eldest sister. As the largest and strongest of my cousins then and now, I was the Bible bearer. Six years previous I attended my second wedding reception. It was for a long-time family friend and his Ukranian bride whom he had found through an international chat room. So, by this count, last night I increased my attendance of weddings and related activities a full 33%.

I had spent the morning and afternoon traveling to and from Songan village on Mount Batur where I collected the children's thank-you letters and pictures for their sponsors. Spending roughly six hours on the way to and from, switching buses on narrow Bali road and taking a motorbike more-or-less straight up a mountain until we broke through the clouds only rarely has never had the most beneficial effect on my mood. My bottom ends up sore from bouncing on seats of generally low cushion, my back sore from carrying my backpack and camera all day, and my hands and forearms sore from holding the rest of me tight against the aforementioned motorbike seat. Walking back down the street to the villa, I was thinking only of some time in the ocean and an evening with the best episodes of Chuck.

Instead, walking past the mosque and through the crowd that had spilled out from it into the street and the empty shops across from it, a village leader and member of our center's advisory council came out to shake my hand and, turning to show an open palm toward the entrance and the buffet line just beyond, asked, "Service?" The only thing keeping me for turning straight in was my less than adequate appearance. I went back only for Demetra. We made it back by the time the night fell. The marriage itself was long past and in the time it took me to shower and dress in the finest Kenya's streets had to offer, the crowd had well dispersed. There were still processions in with the groom, accompanied by striding men in military dress who would throw strikes in and blocks against every side; processions out to fetch the bride; and processions back in with the bride, but it was tame.

And would you know, it was fun. I hate social events where I know few to none. I hate the forced attempts to find something to talk about before the conversation draws its final breath while we commemorate its end with a further few minutes of silence. I ought to hate those especially where the conversation with most is limited to a handful of words in English and Indonesian, but it worked. I didn't have to worry about the mingling. I was free to spend time with the few I knew without trying to ingratiate myself with a host I would never see again. I said hello to the surprising number of people whom I had met in the past weeks, the kids who came to the center for classes, our teachers, the es campur woman, the nasi campur woman, another advisory council member.

And the food. The first line had brownies, pastries filled with lightly sauteéd vegetables and hard boiled egg, chocolate jellies, fish crackers and garlic fried peanuts. That was the snack line. The buffet line had chicken on a stick and cow on a stick, both in a peanut sauce; ground fish on a thicker stick; beef in a curry sauce; chicken meatballs, bigger fish crackers and spicy hot potatoes bits. Know I now why all the shops on our street were closed for the past week, and women just sat in the emptied rooms peeling garlic. Tasty times. I'm a terrible vegetarian.

I'm really glad I went. In just these two months, Bali has celebrated something like three public holidays, and I've twice seen roads stopped by processions to temples. A lot goes on around here, and I was missing it all. I had no idea, and then I get invited to this. It was a nice surprise. It was a good end to my time here.

A final point. After Kenya, Bali was a relief in so many ways. Yes, there was an ocean and black sand beach not more than a hundred meters from the center. Yes, children only visited the center for three or four hours a day providing in their absence a very appreciated quiet. Yes, I could cook for myself. Vying with these all for tops, people didn't care as much that I was white. I still stuck out and drivers would pull off the road in front of me to ask if I needed a ride, but kids weren't singing mzungu when I passed. Then the newly weds ask Demetra and I to take a picture with them. Before the military troupe. Before their brothers and sisters. Before their parents. Yeah.

Sunday, June 13

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The Weekly Kid: Some girl

I'm sorry, but I don't know her name. She came to the Balinese dance class last Wednesday, and her name is amidst the three on the sign-in list.

Which makes this a great opportunity, in my final edition of 'The Weekly Kid' as I will be flying back to the States this Tuesday at the completion of my year with IHF, to let people know that we support more than those children who live at our centers. We also host English, math and computer classes that any children in the community can attend. If you would like to support one, please visit the site.

Saturday, June 12

Considering "The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition"

Hemingway's legend precedes him. Not his reputation, mind you. His legend. It goes beyond a general recognition of the superior quality of his writing and his preferred themes. It goes into his very life. I don't know how many other writers can pull this off. Tolstoy and Dickinson, definitely. Eliot, Vonnegut, Woolf and Salinger, maybe, to a lesser extent.

About Hemingway's work I know that he once wrote about a man deep-sea fishing and wrote more than a few times about World War I and the Spanish Civil War. I also know that he won a Noble Prize for Literature. About his life, I know that he drove an ambulance in World War I. I know that he practiced journalism for a spell and that its style had a lasting influence on his fiction. I know that he spent a lot of time in Paris. I know that he was a chronic alcoholic. I know that he died in Key West.

It's a fascinating experience. I wouldn't call it a pleasant experience, but fascinating is appropriate. I read his stories and look for evidence of this personality and character, those instances where the reality touches and informs the fiction. Heminway favors protagonists who are writers and reporters, most often on the fringe of the action rather than in the thick of it. A good many stories are set in and around and throughout Spain, Italy, Florida and Cuba. The characters drink a lot. They drink at the end of work. They drink in boats. They drink in cars. His sentences toward the brutal in their lack of adornment and pointedness.

It's a foolish exercise. What writer doesn't draw upon their life experiences, their philosophies, their family and friends to create their stories? A teacher read to my class in elementary the memoirs of Gary Paulson. Later that year he read some of his stories, The Raft and The Winter among them. I was disappointed to discover just how many of the scenes and incidents in those were drawn from his personal experiences. Know enough of a writer and one will find that knowledge reflected in their works without effort.

Which is what makes the departures from what one would expect knowing the stories of Hemingway all the more interesting. By all accounts, Hemingway lived his life outloud. He sought the parties and did not flinch from attention. His characters are nobodies and outsiders. At best, they are the ones recording the exploits of heroes and the successful, or their guides in foreign lands. They are cold and withdrawn men. Even those like Manuel Garcia in "The Undefeated" who seeks glory in a final bullfight or Harry in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" don't seem very much to care. It's something else to mark the passage of time, not so different from taking another drink.

What does this reveal about Hemingway that is not immediately present in his biographies and profiles? Are these characters, seemingly so closely modeled on him in their professions and political interests, signs of how Hemingway saw himself? How he wished he were?

Is this even the right question to be posing? This one may be a bit much to ask now. It goes to the very reason we read. Do we read to learn about the individual or about the universal? Do all the particulars of the story in the characters and their concerns, the settings, the times matter only insofar as they reveal the universal? Do all the particulars of all the stories only matter insofar as they ultimately reveal the greatest particular, the writer alone? I tend toward the former, but that's less the point here. Hemingway's legend distracts. It intrudes on the stories and breaks them apart.

Of the stories themselves, I find it odd that they would remind me so much of Chekhov when Hemingway held him in such little regard that he wrote, "Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer." For both of them, it's difficult to even refer to the majority of their works as stories. That would imply a beginning, middle and end to the action, but those are difficult, if not nigh impossible, in most of the pieces. It would be better to describe them as sketches. Characters are introduced. They enter a place. They interact with others. Nothing of consequence happens. They leave. The piece ends. Resolution is rarely offered, but that's understandable as the conflict itself, if at all in existence, is buried deep.

So, like in the case of Chekhov, it was difficult for me to enjoy most of what I read by Hemingway. I like it when things happen in stories. Except for "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," "The Capital of the World," "The Undefeated," and "Under the Ridge," not incidentally my favorites in this 650-page collection, things don't happen in Hemingway's short fiction.

Not to say it isn't good work. Even the most obtuse in the collection has the ability to affect in a hurried read. It's just difficult, and when that difficulty is repeated from the beginning every few pages, it becomes too much. Reading straight through this Finca Vigía edition was a terrible idea. Hemingway's stories and sketches work best as palette cleansers that strip all the unnecessary out of the story and even some of the necessary in an early challenge to see what really is essential. Hemingway is even kind enough to provide palette cleansers to his own stories with fifteen "chapters" interpolated between stories. It's telling when as much action is depicted and implied in these one and two paragraph pieces and their scenes of war as the full surrounding stories.

Thursday, June 10

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Yet another ad in Travel + Leisure

You can find the original pictures used in this ad among my Picasa albums at a higher quality and without cropping. The design isn't that exciting. I like the first two ads I submitted more.

Yet this July this ad will mark the third time I'm published in Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia. That's pretty cool. Now I just hope it brings in some sponsorships.

Wednesday, June 9

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Canang Sari

These are canang sari. You know now more than I do about Bali than I did in my first two weeks here, which is really rather disappointing because the things are omnipresent. My first few days in Bali I had to walk nearly an hour to the nearest Internet café, and I spent most of that time avoiding these things because those that hadn't been set in front of every home, store and restaurant along the way had blown farther along the side of the road to fill in those spots they hadn't been set. I was absolutely terrified of treading all over one and having some grandmother pop out and shake her finger severely at me for not paying due respect to the island's ancient traditions.

A week or two later I finally bummed around Wikitravel's entry on Bali and figured out what they are. Turns out it's totally cool to walk over and on and through them. This amazes me. Near as I can tell, canang sari are a big deal. People don't just drop them on the ground and call them good. They may buy the leaf wrap and a few flowers from a grocery store, but they stock it full with their own incense, rice, cigarettes and coffee grounds. When they put it down, they throw water around. Then they come back around later in the day to do it all over again. I've had bemo drivers take a break to set cananga sari down on the way to the next city over while the rest of the passengers waited patiently. The Balinese even have waist-high stone thrones to hold them in along the roads and inside courtyards and keep the thrones with a checkered wrap.

But they don't care what happens after the carang sari are down. That picture at the very top? Like Ankh-Morpork, canang sari are just stacked on the remains of that which came before. Ants take away the edible offerings. They dry brown and are swept away, and no one is bothered.

I don't know, but if I had put that much effort into something on a daily basis, I expect that I would make a bigger deal about what happens to them when I go back inside. I guess that's part of why we travel, though, to discover new things and new ways of being.

Monday, June 7

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Snorkeling at Tulamben

I know there was a time before I learned to swim, but I don't know exactly when this was. I do recall very nearly drowning in the headwaters of the Mississippi River. That would give some indication of a time I knew no stroke or crawl. It's likely that incident, combined with a mother who was a former lifeguard and a father who enjoyed bringing me along on fishing trips, is the cause of this inability to remember a long-distant past where swimming was not a part of my skill set.

As any proper boy should, I preferred swimming in lakes and rivers to swimming pools. As such, I can't remember either a time where there wasn't at least a single set of fins, mask and snorkel in our towel closet. Their promise is of seeing underwater, watching walleye and perch passing by and crayfish scuttling between rocks. Their power over the young is an undeniable one. In practice, this didn't work so well in the dark of Minnesotan waters. The state name comes from Ojibwa or Chippewa or something and means "cloud-tinted water." Maybe that's true in southern Minnesota. A better name for that in the north would maybe "mud-tinted water" or "Coke-tinted water." Your hand is just a lighter brown stain in the water twenty-centimeters before your eyes in Lake of the Woods. Any farther and it's not even that.

So it wasn't for a few more years that a snorkel and mask proved of any use to me whatsoever. That first time also happened to be in Key West. This past Sunday, I went snorkeling again, this time around the wreck of the USAT Liberty outside of Tulamben. To be clear, the Lonely Planet Guide calls it the best and most popular dive site in Bali. It is still nothing in comparison to Key West and its waters clear as the air above, teeming aquatic life and stretches of brilliant coral. Snorkeling outside of Tulamben the water was so murky that I couldn't see our guide or Demetra if they were more than a few meters to any side though the water was clear down to fifteen at least, it bordered on crowded with so many snorkelers and divers crowding in around the sunken mass and much of the coral had taken on the colors of the rusted hull.

That's not to say it was without its particular pleasures. I kept pace with the divers below, popping the biggest bubbles they released and letting the rest wash over and around me. I saw the electric yellow and blacks of angel fish, others with brilliant blue lines running along their fins, others still no larger than a minnow but brighter than an Easter egg. A school of silver fish the length of my forearm circled around me, away from their Neanderthal cousin, the size of quality club sub-woofer and depth of my extended hand.

I am an unusually fortunate person.

Totally worth the sunburn. It was the first time I bothered to put on sunblock this whole year, and I fully expect to be in pain another two days at least. I haven't had one this bad since first grade.

Sunday, June 6

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The Weekly Kid: Redita

I've got nothing on Redita except that I am very much impressed with how light his hair is. That is unexpected.

As always, if you can afford to give up a dollar a day or even just a few dimes, the money can go a long way toward helping to pay for a child's education and daily needs. Please consider picking up a sponsorship. Thanks.

Saturday, June 5

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Alila

I remember the twins who were my classmates throughout elementary and high school. Our graduating class was small enough that they could divide all of us between three teachers in each grade. Since the two of them were never allowed in the same class, the odds strongly favored my sharing a classroom with them each year. I remember every spring they would leave for a week and return to show us a home video of their travels in Mexico. Every year.

I remember being jealous. My family never went to Mexico. It did go to Canada on occasion, but that was hardly noteworthy. I could walk to Canada. Neither did we spend our vacations in hotels. We eschewed cities entirely and spent our vacations in tents and sleeping bags on grounds of varying levels of hardness. When I was younger, before Boy Scouts and Little League and part-time jobs and all the rest put certain demands on my time and that of my parents, they were weekend trips throughout the state parks of Minnesota, Lake Bemidji, Old Mill and all the rest. When those certain demands were being made of my time and that of my parents, these weekend trips were consolidated into two-week spectacular journeys through the Canadian Rockies, Banff, and Jasper and all the rest.

I appreciated these trips only sporadically. Having plenty of time for reading on the days it took to drive out and back. That was appreciated. Not spending our nights in hotels and days visiting museums was less appreciated.The rest of the time I was too focused on the misery of the current hike to have any other opinion. Within a three-day span we could spend the day going up a mountain which may have challenged several regions of Hell for searing heat, another day moving from boulder to boulder to protect ourselves against whipping snow on the way up another mountain, and the final day, otherwise very pleasant, being chased up by German and Japanese hikers twice my dad's age. A body of water of a temperature and size and cleanliness appropriate for human entrance would have gone a long way toward alleviating some of these complaints, but these were necessarily limited at such high altitudes and where the buffalo roamed.

Nonetheless, years afterward, nigh on a decade by this point, the experiences have left something of a mark on my personality. Mostly in that my vacations are frugal affairs. I have not managed to arrange camping trips of my own, but this past year, whenever I left Nakuru, the nights were always spent in the cheapest rooms. The bathroom and shower in our Mombasa hotel were shared among the entire floor, and our Nairobi rooms were shared with roaches. If we paid more than five dollars for a full meal, we were paying too much.

Sometimes, though, I grow weary of these austerity measures. At those times, I am especially glad that I am now in Bali and not Kenya. When the feeling edged along the edge of my consciousness earlier this week, Demetra and I walked to Alila, a boutique resort not more than ten minutes from the center. Our destination was its Seasalt Restaurant. For near three hours we moved from side to side in our megibung, a shared dish. A cone of turmeric rice rose from and the center and dishes of green beans tossed with bean sprouts, pork soup, chicken on a stick, green beans with duck, fish grilled in a banana leaf with a brown paste, pork on a stick, sliced jackfruit surrounded it. Salts of three essences, lemon, chili and sesame seed, were available if the seasoning left something to be desired. I dearly wish I had memorized the menu because the full names of the accompaniments with their three-sentence descriptions do the meal more justice than my words. The meal was completed with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and pieces of durian and a cup of black dark Balinese coffee.

It was, in a word, wonderful. There was time to nestle comfortably in the chairs and reflect. So I reflected, sipping soda water with ice and looking out on the manicured lawns of a green to rival that of the Emerald Isles. Past them was a clear pool surrounded by lounge chairs and sun umbrellas. As the sun set and darkness grew, hidden lights singled and illuminated tended palm trees.

I reflected, even given the time and funds to do so, would I spend my vacation in a place like this? I thought no. I still think so. I think it may be that there are two drives that push us on our vacations. The one is relaxation, an opportunity for rest and pampering. Not only are the stresses of the daily grind of work and career left behind but the very need to care or plan for ourselves. The restaurant serves your meals. The people clean your bed and clothes. At a place like Alila there is no real need to leave the resort's confines but should you ever feel the need to leave its pool and spa and culinary school behind, it organizes bike rides to its organic farm in the mountains and scuba trips. The people at the courtesy desk have your life handled.

The other impulse to vacation is adventure, the chance to explore a new city, a new land. It's about not knowing what you will find. When something is found, it is different and new. Adventure takes energy and an acceptance of inevitable frustration, but it comes the closest to gnawing clean the marrow of life. Alila is replaceable throughout the world. There were resorts in the same style outside Mombasa, and I am sure there are others in Costa Rica and on the coast of the Mediterranean. The only difference between them being the color of the skin of those serving you.

I am not going to say which is better because we all need something different at different times, but I will say that one does offer the opportunity for much better stories.

So, thanks, Mom and Dad, for teaching me this impulse and making my trips beyond the borders of the United States that much more interesting.

Tuesday, June 1

World Cup

The World Cup begins in ten days with the match between South Africa and Mexico. For the first time in my life, I care. Three different blog posts on the sport in the past months may have suggested this. I know the schedule and will be watching games. I don't know what games the Indonesian channels will broadcast, but I will watch games, be they Ghana and Serbia or be they North Korea and Portugal.

Now I am presented with a dilemma: for whom should I cheer?

The obvious choice would be the United States. It is, afterall, my home nation. But it's not so simple. I don't like cheering for winners. I didn't like the Bulls when Michael Jordan played with them, I didn't like the Cowboys in the early 90's or the Patriots in the early 00's, I've never liked the Yankees, Manchester United is quickly moving up my list of despised franchises, and I can imagine nothing more boring than an NBA Finals culminating in a best of seven between the Lakers and Celtics who together have more than half of all the championship trophies. Where is the fun, the excitement, the satisfaction in cheering for a team whom everyone expects to win and the headlines the next day exclaim that it's their first championship of the decade?

On the face of it, the States wouldn't appear to break this rule. No one expects them to win. They should be able to get out of their group, but anything more than that is going to be overachieving. The difficulty is that the States are too good at every other sport. That America is always among the top three nations for medal counts in any Olympics is a little gross to me, so why should I cheer for their dominance in yet another competition? It's alright to cheer for Canada in hockey and Indonesia in badminton because that's all they have going for them, but does the United States really need another trophy to demonstrate how collectively awesome it is? It doesn't help either that their uniforms make them look like pageant models.

My second choice would be Germany for the family and for having lived there, but how much better of a choice are they than the United States on these criteria? Though they may not top the Olympic medal counts, they are always near the top, and they actually have World Cup championships in their history. At least Adidas can design a good jersey.

So who's left? Not terribly much. New Zealand is just too trendy, but I do appreciate that their nickname is the All Whites, a nice complement to their All Blacks. I can feel like I belong with that team. I guess I could swing for Greece for Demetra and since they really need something to be proud of after dragging down the euro, but I kind of want to cheer for an African nation. I would like to go for South Africa, but I would also like to have a pony in it past the group stages. Can't go for Nigeria after they, along with Tunisia and Mozambique, slapped around Kenya in the qualifying stages. I could go for an East African nation, but that's not happening for another decade or two.

By the admittedly weak criteria of best team names and jerseys, the only choice is the Ivory Coast. Their jerseys are a brilliant orange, and there's an elephant on their right shoulder. The team name, the Elephants, stomps all over Les Bleus or Die Mannschaft. That is a lot of awesome. Unfortunately, they are captained by Didier Drogba, a highly unpleasant man.

I've got nothing. Oh well. Here's to South Africa advancing to the knock-out stages, to France crashing and burning for their handball and child prostitution scandal, to New Zealand living up to everyone's hopes, to a new nation taking the World Cup and to a little excitement in the tournament.