An American Abroad

Leaving for Puerto Rico

Man plans; God laughs. Although I’m not a believer, I appreciate the underlying truth of that aphorism.

I’ve been stateside and earthbound for over two years now. There were times when I wondered if my expat days were behind me. I thought about going abroad again every single day, but I’d vowed to myself not to leave again until my seemingly-interminable divorce was concluded.

There were some tough times in the last two years, but many more good ones.

I got to act in some wonderful stage and screen productions.

I found work that appealed to my practical, physical problem-solving skills.

I wrote some things I’m proud of and was recognized for.

I learned more about the natural world. I saved money, even when I wasn’t earning very much.

I discovered new friends.

I worked hard on a local political issue.

I fell in love with someone who lets me be me.

But now it’s time for a new chapter. In four days, I’ll be moving to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I have accepted a job as managing editor of a web-based publication that provides consumer information, reviews, and product comparisons.

Truth be told, Puerto Rico was never on my mental map of places I might go to live. In fact, a year ago I would have told you there was far more chance that I’d wind up in someplace like Uzbekistan than on a Caribbean island. But an opportunity came my way that was too enticing to pass up. And so here I go.

Stay tuned….

Kuala Lumpur: Photo Edits

When I returned to America after two years abroad, I brought back thousands of photos. Some of these I hastily edited and published on this blog, but the vast majority have never seen the light of day.

My good friend Lori Seubert convinced me to let her edit some of my photos. She has an amazing eye; she sees things in my pictures that I do not, and her editing skills allow her to bring them out. Here, then are her edits of her favorite photos of Kuala Lumpur, which I took in June of 2014.

Trump: Ya Got Trouble

Not long after the video of the Gilbert & Sullivan parody I wrote about Kim Davis hit the interwebs, I was again contacted by Richard Kraft. This time, he offered me a commission to write a parody about Donald Trump set to a song in The Music Man by Meredith Wilson.

In the original musical, the song is sung by Harold Hill, a charismatic con man who goes from town to town selling musical instruments. Since every product must assuage an anxiety, he cleverly ginned up concern among the parents of the American midwest that their sons were being corrupted by the game of pool. Once that anxiety hit a fever pitch, Harold Hill came up with the solution: the formation of a boys’ band that would get American youth out of the pool halls and into the wholesome activity of playing in a brass band.

The parallels to Trump and his attempts to foment anxiety about immigrants and ISIS were perfect. Once I began writing, the words just fell into place. Here is the result. Enjoy!

Bucket Lists Trivialize Travel

There isn’t anything uniquely awful about this article that pushed me over the edge into rant mode. In fact, by avoiding the hackneyed and cliched term “bucket list” in favor of the hackneyed and cliched term “trips of a lifetime,” it actually got some points from me. Well, a tenth of a point anyway.

Per CNN and TripAdvisor, here are the places that the American media conglomerate thinks I must see and things I must do — the trips “you spend your whole life dreaming about”:

1. See the Northern Lights
2. Sleep in an Overwater Bungalow
3. Admire the Sunset Over Santorini
4. Trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
5. Explore the Galapagos Islands
6. Visit Italy’s Alfami Coast
7. Photograph the ‘Big Five’ on Safari
8. Take the Ultimate Road Trip [on Route 66]
9. Set Foot on Antarctica
10. Ride the Trans-Siberian Railway

I read this list with mounting annoyance and then jumped on Twitter to write “#YABBLE: Yet Another Bullshit Bucket List Exercise.” I’d finally snapped.

I’m not a travel snob. I’m not put out by the destinations listed by CNN, even though I weary of seeing the same locales flogged over and over in travel articles and blog posts. I’d like to go to all of them. Of course, I’d also like to go to Flint (Michigan), Swansea (Wales), the Wotje Atoll (Marshall Islands), or any one of ten thousand other unsung places I could point to on a map at random, but that’s beside the point.

No, what burns my bacon is the superficiality of the verbs: see, sleep, admire, visit, set foot on, photograph, ride, etc. These are actions that demand next to nothing from the traveler. OK, I saw, slept, admired and photographed. Check, check, check, and check. Now on to the next must-do. If you could instantly teleport yourself to those destinations, you could knock off nine of those ten checklist items in an afternoon. You’d have stamps in your passport, photos in your camera, and destinations to name-drop, but little else. Certainly you wouldn’t have understanding.

Elvis Costello put it this way: “They say that travel broadens the mind til you can’t your head out of doors.” I’ve met people like that, people a mile wide and an inch deep, folks for whom travel is about completing a checklist or competing for passport stamps. The phrase “bucket list,” from an insipid movie of the same name, illustrates perfectly the grim determination such people bring to their peregrinations. No one cares that the phrase refers to death, not life.

Hong Kong 2010: Signs of the Times

I have a habit of photographing signs when I travel. I find that they often communicate far more than their text conveys. So continuing with my series of the photos I took from an October 2010 trip to Hong Kong, here are some signs I saw there, together with my comments.

This one reminds me of the toilet wars between China and Hong Kong. Some Chinese people (especially those who until recently lived in rural areas and now live in cities – which is to say tens of millions of folks) have no problem with allowing their children to pee and poop on sidewalks and streets. Hong Kongers find this utterly uncivilized. A couple years ago, fistfights between mainlanders and Hong Kongers broke out over this practice. The mainlanders then thought they were being condescended to by the Hong Kongers, and briefly attempted to boycott HK.

Actually, Hong Kong has a fair number of well-maintained public toilets. Here’s one.

Signs that suggest delusions of grandeur and commercial religiosity often make me chuckle.

So do badly-translated signs. In fact, there are entire blogs dedicated to this genre. I try not to be too critical here; Chinese people do a lot better with English than Americans do with Chinese.

Then there are the signs that convey a public service message, like these.

Signs like these are essential for visitors from places where we drive on the right as God intended. I myself had several near-accidents stepping into roadways when I’d looked the wrong way out of habit.

Signs are an important part of the Hong Kong street scene. They help give the city its distinctive flavor. Here are some classics.

This one amused me. Where, I wondered, is the school for Bad Kids?

I was surprised to find this elegant old sign at the entrance to a mosque. Frankly, I was surprised to find a mosque in Hong Kong at all. But it certainly reflects the city’s deep-rooted cosmopolitan character.

After all these official and fancy signs, it was somehow reassuring to see something about as down-home as it gets.

Hong Kong 2010: HK Museum of History

In the fall of 2010, I took my first trip to Hong Kong and fell in love with the city. I wasn’t maintaining a travel blog then. I recently dug out my photos and notes from that trip and am posting them here.

Kim Davis’s Song

Earlier this month, I was sitting on the sofa reading news accounts of the Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, who refused to do her job and issue marriage licenses to people in her county. She was opposed to same-sex marriage, of course, but to be “fair,” she stopped issuing all marriage licenses whatsoever. She wound up in jail for a few days for violating an order of the US District Court and was then released to a hero’s welcome by those people who support her stand.

I was incredulous. Everything about Kim Davis cried out for parody. In fact, she parodies herself. I thought she was behaving like a martinet. That word got me thinking about Gilbert & Sullivan. I’ve acted and/or sang in several of their operettas. Many of their plots were about people who loved each other but who couldn’t marry because of social disapproval. And I remembered The Major-General’s Song from HMS Pinafore. The Kim Davis lyrics then almost wrote themselves.

The lyrics came to the attention of Richard Kraft, a man deeply experienced in the uses of music in film. He directed this video of the song and cast the talented Rena Strober as Kim. As of today, it has been viewed over 250,000 times across three platforms (Facebook, Funny or Die, and YouTube). Enjoy!

My Travel Essays & Articles

In the last two years, I’ve had various articles and essays published by the Village Voice of Ottawa Hills, my hometown’s monthly newspaper. They have graciously permitted me to repost those pieces here.

Your Miserable Life Will Soon Be Over

Mom-and-Pop Businesses and BMWs

Where English is a Pose

High Standards and Student Rights

Elephant Unemployment in Northern Laos

Taking the Road to Fuxian Lake

Expatriate Year

Why Would You Want to Go There?

Tunisia: A New Democracy is Born

When American Values Collide with Tunisian Society

Copyright Village Voice of Ottawa Hills. Used by permission.

Nicaragua 2008: The Buses of San Carlos

After a remarkable visit to El Castillo, Spencer and I caught another riverboat, this one going upriver back to San Carlos. We went directly to the bus station and bought tickets for Managua. While we waited, we drank sodas and watched ancient, brightly-painted buses wheeze into the station and pick up or discharge their human cargoes.

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This bus, below, undoubtedly sported the best motto. “Solo Dios Sabe Se Volvere” means “only God knows if we will return” in Nicaraguan Spanish. That slogan seems far more honest than most travel company taglines.

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When it came time for us to embark, I was disappointed that our bus didn’t sport a wild Latin American paint job. Instead, we were directed toward an elderly Bluebird school bus that had been painted (appropriately enough) a washed-out blue.

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We headed around the northern coast of Lake Nicaragua, riding over roads that had enormous ruts and potholes in them. The Bluebird’s shocks and springs had long ago been exhausted, so we felt every one of those bumps right in our kidneys. Sleep was made impossible by the bus’s audio/visual entertainment system, which shrieked out Latin American music videos at a volume its poor little speakers were never meant to handle. It was only marginally less uncomfortable than our ferry ride to San Carlos had been. And yet we both acknowledged that we were having a good time.

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Over nine hours and 292 kilometers (181 miles) after leaving San Carlos, we finally arrived in Managua and checked into the Crowne Plaza, the pyramid-shaped hotel where Howard Hughes lived in the early 1970s. This was the last stop on our Nicaragua itinerary. We were here:

Nicaragua 2008: The Tributaries of the Rio San Juan

Continuing my reminiscences of a journey my son and I took to Granada and El Castillo in 2008 . . .

In El Castillo, Spencer and I inquired around town and found a native-born naturalist with a canoe who agreed to take us deeper into the jungle on the tributaries of the Rio San Juan. We were interested in seeing some of the animals (other than the domesticated species) that inhabit the jungle near the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border. We took two excursions with him, one by day and one by night.

Ironically, the first and most numerous animals I saw during the daylight hours were actually nocturnal. There were short-tailed bats (possibly of the genus Carollia) clinging to the sides of trees along the riverbanks, presumably sleeping and awaiting the evening hours.

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We also spied some bright green iguanas along the riverbank, though they blended in so well with the foliage we had to be lucky to see one contrasted against a darker background.

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As we meandered through the streams and tributaries, we caught glimpses of some primate species high in the trees above. They were so far off the ground — and I had such an inadequate little point-and-shoot digital camera — that I wasn’t able to get any good pictures of them. But we certainly heard them chattering as we approached. But we did get close enough to some of the river birds to get their pictures. This anhinga (whose name means snake bird or devil bird) was out fishing on a rock in the middle of the stream

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When we weren’t focused on animals, my son and I relaxed under the hot, clear skies. Occasionally we’d look at each other and say something like “Holy shit — we’re in Nicaragua.”

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During our nighttime excursion, our guide used a searchlight to locate some of the river animals, whom we saw first by their eyes glowing weirdly as the light swept over them. This juvenile alligator freaked me out a little. It was so primitive-looking. Looking at it at night in the middle of the Central American jungle made feel like I’d been transported back in time 10,000 years or more. He belonged there. I didn’t.

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In contrast, this mourning dove seemed almost out of place in the jungle; I wondered why he wasn’t back at home in a big city.

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This adolescent green iguana was very friendly; he would have come home with us if we’d wanted.

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When he grows up, he’ll look something like this.

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We caught frogs and caught glimpses of other birds that night. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t come across any larger animals.

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So ended my first (and so far only) trip into a tropical jungle. That brief excursion birthed a number of dreams that I’ve not yet realized. I still stare at maps of the Amazon and the Congo and hope that someday I’ll be able to tackle those far more forbidding riverine environments.