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For an entire 2 calendar years, I did not leave the USA. I came home from Marseilles, France on Nov 5, 2016 (very depressed, and you can figure out why if you remember what was happening then) and here I stayed. I was stuck! This is hard for a nomad used to roaming parts of the planet. Oh sure, I didn’t stay in Oregon–we went to California and even Florida. My kids traveled to places like China and Iceland and Rhode Island. But I locked my passport away and didn’t use it at all.

But 2019 is different. This is the year that, even though we are Gen-X or, as my husband likes to call us, pre-millennials (that’s a joke for all you current or former baptists out there!), we are traveling as if we were millennials. We started off January by going to Thailand, and in June, we are planning to go to Iceland. We may look more like aging hipsters, with our grey beards (Donn) and oddly wrinkled necks (me), but you’re only as young as you feel…no that won’t work, as we don’t feel young. In fact, we are already beginning to discover the joys of stiff necks and pinched nerves. We are just traveling to trendy spots!

Why there? You might ask. Why not return to France, with all their lovely cheeses and pastries and cobbled streets? What about Mauritania, with your good friends there, or Morocco, where you can bore us with yet more pictures of the markets? Simple. We went to a conference in Thailand and managed to squeeze in several days of vacation round each end. And our oldest kid moved to Iceland to go to grad school, and we want to see him, not to mention his new country. Iceland is so pretty!

We got home from Chiang Mai 2 weeks ago and I’m still sick, but I miss writing and who cares that blogs are dead unless you were smart enough to never quit? I like writing about my trips. So, I will leave you with a picture of a Buddha from the Doi Suthrep Temple, and I’ll be back soon to tell you all about it!


Last week, I accidentally bumped Ilsa’s foot and she shrieked. At first I thought she was simply being melodramatic, not that that would be normal or anything for a 13 year old girl. But when she said her toe hurt, my heart sank within me like the proverbial stone.

It was just red at first, but by the next day there was a bubble of yellow green pus already forming. I will spare you further details. Suffice it to say I quickly got online and then couldn’t manage to access my super-secret private insurance page and had to wait to call and then had to wait for the customer service to get approval from my husband before they could talk to me. Am I in Morocco still? I asked myself. Just kidding, but it did strike me as awfully silly since the account clearly showed me as being on it. Sigh.

Then I spent hours trying to make sure I didn’t need a referral to go straight to a podiatrist. I also found a podiatrist nearby and made an appointment. I wasn’t waiting around this time. Never again will I have a doctor purse her lips at me and say snootily, “You have waited too long, madame.”

Today we went to the Foot Clinic or whatever it was called. I told our saga over and over…the removal 13 months ago, the reinfection that wouldn’t go away, the Good Doctor and the Bad Doctor, the perky blonde who took care of it in August at the amusingly-named Zoom Care. I explained all this over the phone when I made the appointment, then again to the nurse, then again to the doctor. Ilsa added in moans and groans and appalling little stories about how the Moroccan surgeon did not let her toe numb completely before he pulled out the nail. It was a great time and we were just warming up our act when the doctor got out his needle.

Now I will say that Ilsa is actually a very tough girl, but this toe thing has worn her out and she is done. She no longer handles needles. Her entire body tensed and, as is her wont, she expressed her emotions freely, using all of her vocal cords. The doctor and I kept trying to get her to lie down and relax. I attempted to cheer her right up by explaining how I had given birth to her and her twin brother without pain medicine, simply by relaxing, but the story did not have the desired effect.

Eventually the novacaine took effect, and she was able to stoically view her injured toe with both sides of the nail removed and huge wooden Q-tips sticking out of it. The doctor decided to definitively take care of the problem by putting poison, a type of acid, on the sides of the nail, so it will never grow out again. The acid turned her skin a deep blackish purple and the nail in between looked sort of green. “You love purple,” I said encouragingly to Ilsa, but she wasn’t convinced. “You could paint a picture of it and people would say you had the colours wrong,” I continued, but she still wasn’t cheering up. Some people are a hard sell.

It was very exhausting watching my daughter suffer. I asked the doctor if he’d consider something a bit stronger than Tylenol 3, for me, for my recovery, but he declined.

We headed over to the pharmacy for the ointment, the antibiotic, and the Tylenol 3 for Ilsa. I left Ilsa in the car, per her request, as her toe was beginning to hurt a little bit, and went into the store. It’s a large store, and there was a large line to match. I turned in the 3 papers. “Give us at least 40 minutes,” said the pharmacist. I groaned, and she took pity on me. “Try in 35,” she urged.

I figured I might as well do my grocery shopping, so I raced around the store. I had just joined the still-long line for pharmacy pick-up when Ilsa appeared, moaning in pain. The novacaine had worn off, she’d been sitting in a freezing car for nearly an hour, and she had completely lost any perspective she might once have had, which, seeing as she’s a 13 year old girl, wasn’t much. We drove home through freezing rain, which crackled and tinkled against the windows like we were driving through icicles. I must admit that I do love freezing rain, although it’s a bit disappointing after we were promised snow. Ilsa continued to emote on the drive home. Once home, I gave her Tylenol 3 with a big glass of milk, and then we got to enjoy hours of her giggling to herself. The pain relief was supposed to last 6 hours but only lasted 3. (although I have to say that I myself have never found Tylenol 3 all that effective. I gave her some advil too, and sent her to bed. I am expecting to be gotten up about 2 a.m.)

The doctor said that even with only half of a nail left, she could still get an ingrown toenail. “But she’s starting with a clean slate,” he assured me, as he got a glimpse of my expression. “She shouldn’t get one.” I hope not. Like Ilsa, I am pretty much done with this.

The saga of Ilsa’s toe continues.

My mythical longterm readers (I believe you are out there!) remember this started last December, when she had a toenail removed by a rather unimpressive surgeon. A couple of months ago it got reinfected and we went immediately to the doctor, who prescribed a terrible regime of forcing alcohol-soaked cotton wedges between the nail and the skin on either side. We did this faithfully, every single night, for weeks. The pharmacist took a look and gave us antibiotics, which helped, but the toe would not heal.

Last week we went to a new doctor, who was not impressed with the cotton-shoved-under-skin-with-toothpick mode of torture. She put us on a new regime of antibiotic creams, pills, anti-fungal pills, etc. It’s still not better, but we’re making progress. If it’s not better soon, she said to come back. Sigh.

Don’t worry—no pictures for this one!

“There’s a new disease in the world, and it can kill you,” announced Ilsa’s friend J, a blond German girl with whom Ilsa speaks a mixture of French and English. “Yes, I know; swine flu,” I smile, reassuringly. But the discussion, complete with wide eyes and grand statements, continues.

“The internet says you’re not allowed to hug and kiss people anymore,” says J, “so you can’t kiss your brother anymore.” This announcement causes Ilsa to jump on Abel and kiss him wildly. Normally, 12 year old boy/girl twins don’t kiss anymore. Long gone are the days when they’d spontaneously hold hands and kiss each other and announce how much they loved each other, how when they grew up they were going to marry each other. Now that same love is shown in annoyance, in tricks, in teasing. Now if I tell them how they used to be, I get faux vomiting.

The children discuss this international news item. “In which country it started?” asks the girl. “I know it is in Spain now, which is close to Morocco, but it is not in Morocco…yet,” she adds ominously. She tells us that her 8 year-old sister was sobbing last night, because she thought she could no longer hug her mother.

I point out that the kids won’t have to greet French parents politely, with a kiss on each cheek. “You’ll like that.” For some reason, the kids have imbued enough American culture to be embarrassed by this, which has always made me a little sad. I love it when I see their friends at school and they practically line up to kiss me, so polite. My mind wanders a bit…I could see something like this being the death knell to a cultural practice that has no doubt endured for centuries. (My brief google search did not turn up a lot of history, although I did find a fascinating study on how many kisses to give depending on what region of France you’re in) Maybe the French will stop kissing in greeting during the pandemic (should it continue), and it’ll never really come back. I hope not.

“ I wonder if it will be something like the Black Death, and claim a ton of lives,” says Ilsa a bit ghoulishly, pulling me back to the current discussion. Abel demurs. “No! Nowadays we have medicine!”

“If you have it, you have it! There’s no medicine.” J smiles, defiantly. “That is why I’m scaarredd!” She says it triumphantly. Although these kids are worried (“We haven’t even lived half our lives!” says Ilsa, which leads to a discussion of how long lives are. “I’m too young to die!” says Abel, and I think, sadly, no), there’s something grand and fearless in their discussion of this reality too terrible to be imagined. I remember similar discussions from my own childhood, about nuclear bombs and, once, the possibility of a flash flood; the fear and the grown-up feeling of importance and the disbelief all rolled into one emotion.

The children are not the only ones discussing potential pandemics. I run into Ismail  and we end up chatting for a good 20 minutes, an occupational hazard of our front gate. “Have you heard of this grippe porcine?“ he asks me. He tells me that Morocco will no longer allow importation of pork meat, which is available here only in the bigger supermarkets, small wizened chorizo sausages imported from Spain and very expensive. I bought bacon for Donn’s birthday in September, one piece each for the family and 3 for him, and it cost me $12.

Ismail believes swine flu is a punishment from God on people who eat pork, but I explain no, it’s airborne. “Even those who don’t eat pig meat could die,” I tell him. This makes him nervous. Later that night, I make pepperoni pizza with the last of our pork meat from our February visit to Spain, and I think of Ismail as I eat.

This afternoon is bright and breezy, and Ilsa has 3 friends over to celebrate her birthday. It’s a quiet celebration; lots of giggling and music and the girls eat only a little cake and not the potato chips. The cake fell apart (it was still too warm) but fresh strawberries can cover a multitude of sins.

I’m used to kid parties; this transitional year of 12 is a bit tricky. I hope they’re having a good time. It’s nice to sit here and type, instead of herding and worrying and coming up with games. The girls sit on the wall and talk. I eavesdrop from the balcony, camera in hand. We do an impromptu photo shoot after the opening of presents; after each click, the girls demand to see. “Oh I look terrible!” they moan in unison, these girls who can’t see their own beauty. “I look like a moron!”

Today, thoughts of pandemics and plagues are far from their minds; they sit in the sun, heads tilted back, hands weaving stories of school days and mean teachers and best friends. In the living room, a breeze from an open window wafts a balloon silently across the floor.

I’ve been meaning to post this video for ages. It’s long but worth watching. (I’m sorry to send you somewhere else but I can’t manage to actually post it here.) It’s a sobering news article about the current food crisis in Mauritania. I love it because it shows what much of Nouakchott really looks like and the reality of many people’s lives. Also, I’m pretty sure that I know the person who does the English translation of the Mauritanian man. I think he was one of my students last year.
Also, please notice all the flies! Some things I don’t miss.

Before we moved to Africa, we got a lot of shots. We went to a travel clinic and pretty much got everything they recommended. We even considered getting rabies shots, just in case, because of the packs of wild dogs that roam the streets. I’m glad we didn’t, because it wouldn’t have been necessary. This is also how we found out I’m allergic to thimerosal, and the resulting puffiness and red welts on my face are why I can’t wait for my current passport to expire.

We also bought enough malaria medicine to last us for a while. As is our wont, we read the information on it, and were somewhat amused and horrified to find out that the side effect of that particular kind of medicine is insanity. That’s not an exaggeration. Paranoia, hallucinations, and some suicides were mentioned. Nonetheless, we bought quite a lot of it and then never took it. We ended up donating it all to a clinic in Nouakchott.

There isn’t a lot of malaria in Nouakchott, where it’s dry enough most of the year that mosquitoes aren’t a huge problem. The doctors I knew who lived there took prophylactics all the time, but they’re doctors. Doctors are paranoid anyway, even without being on malaria prevention meds. We only took it when we went to Senegal or to villages in the south of Mauritania along the river, buying the medicine in syrup form for children, this really nasty coffee-flavoured syrup. As they got older and as more medicines have developed, we got to the point where we only had to take one pill a week for a month after returning from an affected area. No one in the Nomad family ever got it.

But I’ve seen plenty of others who did; enough to know what a horrible disease malaria is. It kills, quite unnecessarily, 1000s of people every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa; people who, unlike us, can’t afford to pay a few dollars for medicines to cure this preventable disease. The UN declared Friday, April 25, as World Malaria Day, and has started a big push to get treated mosquito nets into the hands of those who can’t afford them. This simple step goes a long way in preventing the disease. Compassion International is joining the effort, and announced Bite Back, a program to get these mosquito nets into the homes of the poor. For only $10, which you must admit isn’t much, you can donate one. And, if you donate one while thinking of Shalee and her birthday, and then leave her a comment and let her know, she’ll enter you to win a prize. I mean, not only can you help the poor, but you can possibly get a prize for it.

$10 for a treated net. If you were at risk, you’d get one in a second.

Life is still very quiet here on Planet Nomad. There’s no sign of the sandstorm letting up just yet. One year at this time, the sandstorm lasted 32 days, so we may be here a while. We’re keeping the windows closed, and the house is staying downright cool! We’re wearing slippers and long-sleeved t-shirts and enjoying some extra coffee (like we ever need an excuse to do that). Today is the last official day of vacation, and next Monday it’s back to work and school.

In lieu of any current excitement, today’s post is about the locust plague of 2004.

We’d just come back from living in France for a year. We’d descended, rather like a plague ourselves, on our previously-good friends Tim and Debbie and their one son, turning their quiet and well-organized home into something more like, well, our home.

It was early September, the hot/humid season. We’d heard reports over the summer of a locust visitation, and were suitably horrified, and secretly a little disappointed that we’d missed the excitement. We needn’t have been.

I don’t remember exactly when the locusts first came back, but it was probably about 2 weeks after we’d swarmed in and settled ourselves into Johnson’s house, eating up their food but drawing the line at their hibiscus plants. One sweltering afternoon, we walked outside and saw the sky full of tiny winged bodies.

The first wave of locusts were pink with brown wings—kinda stylish, if you could overcome your loathing. They took out Johnson’s hedge in about an hour. The sky was full of whirring, chomping noises, as millions of tiny insect jaws set to work, masticating every green thing in sight. It was a somewhat awe-inspiring, if nauseating sight.many-locusts.jpg

By sunset, all that remained of a once-proud hedge, a once brilliant spot of green in this dry and dusty land, was a meager collection of twigs. The hibiscus plants were just as bad. Tim and Debbie had rushed out with old sheets to cover up the flamboyant tree, but the locusts had eaten through the fabric in several places. The locusts were swarming, looking for a place to settle that night. A few got in the house. One got in Debbie’s hair; another landed on Donn’s shirt and ate a small hole in the linen.

I don’t remember all the invasions, but I do remember that, like labour pains, they gradually got closer and closer together. After that first wave, we assumed everything was dead. But a tiny green fuzz was appearing on the brown twigs, bringing joy to our hearts when, one blistering afternoon, we heard again the dreaded buzz of millions of wings and the chewing of thousands of tiny mouths.

The adults were overcome with dismay, but Abel (then 7) went out in the storm to fight. Armed with a cape, a light-saber, and a whip made of a bit of rope he’d found, he pulled on his flip-flops and yelled a mighty KI-YAH! He leaped out of the door and began whipping and hitting and kicking. It was truly inspirational, and we blinked back tears (of laughter pride) as we watched his heroics.

Walking out into a locust hoard is like walking out into a rain storm, only instead of tiny drops of water, you are bombarded with insect bodies. They land in your hair, they land on your shoulders, they cover the ground. We were the lucky ones who only had to make it to our cars; the Africans, many of whom walk miles to work each day, had it much worse.

Each consecutive wave ate more. First, the pink ones ate all the green. A few weeks later, another wave of darker pink ones ate the new green. Then came yellow ones, who ate all the bark, and finally dull brown ones who ate everything that grew. All plants were mere stubs, a twig of a few centimetres poking forlornly out of the sand. The trees were stricken, and we didn’t expect them to survive.this-is-a-close-up.jpg

They always came on the hottest days, adding insult to injury. I remember emerging from class one afternoon to find the sky full of a few dozens. My heart sank, knowing what was coming. Sure enough; next morning was a full-fledged invasion.

Locusts were everywhere. You’d slice open a baguette and find half a locust baked in. They got caught in the screens and died, and for months afterward we were finding bodies when we opened our windows. Every night, some would get into the house; every morning, there were bodies to be swept up. Weirdly enough, locusts would eat their dead kin. After some weeks, we were hearing rumours from our Mauritanian friends that in the interior, people were disappearing, eaten by locusts! Their dismay fed rumours that grew more and more implausible.

Invasions would typically last 2 or 3 days, until an east wind from the desert would drive them into the ocean, where they’d drown. We’d go to the beach and find piles of bodies washed up on the sand; one week we couldn’t swim because of all the carcasses in the water.

The last of the locust plague left a still, almost shell-shocked city. The locusts came to all of West Africa, but Mauritania sustained the most damage, and many people in the villages faced a terrible famine that year. Here in the city, where most of our potatoes, onions and carrots are shipped down from Europe anyway, it wasn’t so bad, but in the interior of the country, subsistence farmers were in dire straits, and many died in spite of great efforts by World Vision and other international aid organizations.

The city felt strange. It felt like a hellish autumn, as for once all the trees were bare. But the amazing thing was that life remained in those barren sticks poking out of the dry ground. In time, hedges, trees and bushes recovered, grew back, in the wildest “spring” I could ever have imagined.

That December also brought an unusual amount of flies. At the beach, I would crack open the cooler, plunge in my hand and pull out a sandwich, and in that time find my arm black with them.
It was more than a little spooky. I explained to someone at the time, “First locusts, now flies. If the water turns red, a lot of frogs appear, or anyone gets boils—I’m outta here!”

All day the sky was low, about 10 feet over our heads, and made of bronze. The air was heavy, without a breath of wind. The leaves hung limply in the garden. By nightfall, it was, if anything, even hotter than it had been during the day.

We always get at least a couple of nights like this during the year, so I knew what to expect—the electricity would go out. Sure enough, about 11:30, I was writing an email to my husband when suddenly I was plunged into darkness.

I fumbled my way into the kitchen and found matches and candle. Leaving a trail of blue wax drips behind me like I was Gretel trying to find my way home, I turned off what lights I knew were on and tried to find the kids’ water bottles. This year, 2 of 3 don’t have insulated ones because I haven’t gotten around to buying them yet, so their bottles need to be ½-filled and placed in the freezer overnight. I completed this task mostly by feel and optimistically, with faith that the lights would be on before 6 a.m. (Hey I’m an optimist! Didn’t you notice that bit about ½ filled?)

By midnight, I mounted the stairs, leaving my signature blue drops behind me, the candle and I both dripping. Our room was a tiny bit cooler than the rest of the house. By some miracle, I could get a driblet of water from the tap (when the electricity is gone, the pump can’t get water into the house), enough to brush my teeth. I cleverly stuck the candle to the side of the taps, to leave my hands free, choosing that spot because a. I would have the light and b. it would be easy to clean the wax off the smooth porcelain later. There was plenty of room between the candle and the plastic shelf above which holds toothbrushes, soap, etc. I washed my face, careful not to let the water splash onto the flame, since I’d left the matches downstairs in the kitchen. The flame heightened in the still air and licked quietly at the underside of the plastic shelf… Oh well. I never really liked that plastic shelf much anyway, and if I put my scrunch spray over the hole, no one will notice. And who else goes in my bathroom anyway?

I lay down on top of the sheet and tried to relax. I could feel the heat descending upon me, the heaviness of the air, as the last of the coolness evaporated. I dropped off quickly, only to wake again gasping for air a few minutes later, drowning in a puddle of my own sweat. (Gross, I know, but we must face facts if we’re going to help you feel you were living it too) I walked slowly, hands outstretched, feeling with my feet to avoid stepping on my daughter’s face, and groped until I found a hand fan, and fanned myself till my arm was tired. I waved it over the kids. (I think I’m addicted to parenthetical remarks: we have only one AC so all the kids are sleeping in my room these days. Privacy? Well I don’t get much of that at the best of times!) I gulped down a glass of water. I wandered out onto the balcony, but it was just as hot out there.

Elliot woke up, gasping. He was dripping wet. We chatted a while about the lack of electricity and how much darker it was. There’s a hotel near us with a generator, and we could see their light reflected off the sandy air, like fog.

Soon all the kids were awake from the heat, and inclined to be whiny. It was about 1 a.m. by this point. I sang songs, I told stories, about children who lived in ice caves and went to school by sleigh, about a little girl who lived with her family on a cedar-covered island in the middle of a cold grey sea. I thought of hell and said I imagined it might be like our current situation, which made my daughter cry. (Although it didn’t take much to make her cry at that point) Finally about 2 we all wandered out onto the balcony, which was gritty with sand. Everyone liked standing there staring out at the darkened city. We felt the teensiest breath of air sigh across our faces. In hope, I dragged two mattresses out, but the mosquitoes were terrible for such a sandy night, and the night seem disinclined to loose any more sighs our way, although I sent a few its way, in hope. We went back in and opened the windows. We tried to sleep.

The night dragged on. Around 5:30, the electricity came back on, just in time for the call to prayer to blare from the mosque across the street. When it came on, we all cheered! We all slept in, too. At school, the kids’ teachers said that everyone was tired but let’s still try to get some work done.

No one in the city slept last night. I compared notes with French mothers, Senegalese house-workers, Mauritanian friends—all had the same experience, although some were lucky enough to get a nap in later.

The morning continued hot and still. The air was still sandy, but the light was brighter. Suddenly, the sky went dark red and the windows rattled. Sand and wind mixed together hit the house with a bang. We were in for a really bizarre sandstorm—more like a sand blizzard. For about an hour the storm raged, disrupting traffic, downing trees and electric wires and fences and streetlights, lifting plastic bags into a wild frenzied dance in the air, filtering through even closed windows to leave a film on every surface in the house. I stood on the porch, looking out. Visibility extended only as far as my next-door neighbour’s, but amazingly enough the wind was cooler.

I went out towards the end. The house was still muggy and hot, which made taking my sticky skin out into a sandstorm something special in the way of exfoliating options. Also, it saves me money on that rub-on tan stuff—my way is all natural, no weird chemicals. Come visit me and you can try it too—for FREE. Optimistic and generous, that’s me.

Eventually the sand died down, so we opened up the house for the cooler breezes. But they went away too. Now we’re back to where we were before—still and hot.

But the electricity is still on! I’m going to bed, where I can enjoy that AC while it lasts. I hope to dream of ice caves.

PS Quiz answers tomorrow! If you haven’t taken the challenge, there’s still time!

PS2 I hope everyone remembered to celebrate International Talk Like A Pirate Day! What did you all do?

September 2022

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