Reading On the Road: Travel Companions Aren’t Always Flesh and Blood.

DAOIPAL

It began as an attempt at adventure. I met and instantly connected with another American on the second day of an independent trip around Ireland. She’d just landed what was a serious win in the broke-student-traveler-community: a job waiting tables in one of Ireland’s most scenic and secluded tourist destinations. The pay would be in cash and meals and housing were included. They needed more help and it took all of two hours for her to convince me to join her.

I had some firm commitments for the next few weeks, but after that there was a job secured and a bed waiting for me in a former youth hostel dedicated to housing crazy travelers like us who happily dropped everything for a chance at menial labor in a foreign country. Funny the glamor an exotic locale drapes over a situation I would never consider at home. I felt incredibly brave. I had just graduated from university and seemed like a giant step towards true independence. I was a free spirit. What adventures awaited a soon-to-be-waitress on a magical island? Yeah. That lasted.

  

I traveled and volunteered, all the time anticipating my daring plans, and became enthralled by my second-hand copy of “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell. His trials as an expat casual kitchen laborer and depictions of his home in various Parisian slums were fascinating, touching, and at times hysterical. I had served my time as a waitress in high school and college, and I nodded along with his descriptions of pretentious waiters and raving chefs. Life surely would not be like that for me on my upcoming adventure. The Irish were friendly and relaxed after all, so surely waiting tables would be a breeze of pleasantries. How could anything possibly go wrong in the quaint mountain village that would be my home throughout the tourist season? I envisioned myself taking long post-lunch service walks through the heather-covered hills, or having chatting late into the night with story-spinning locals while traditional music played in the background. Poor Orwell and his days working in appalling conditions and nights spent in rat-infested rooms filled with the sounds of consumptive coughs. Not for me, but thanks for sharing the stories.

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One week after my job began, my friend left suddenly due to events back home. I was sad to lose my kindred spirit, but traveling friendships are like that. Mysteriously, when she left, the job and its surroundings began to go pear-shaped. The formerly quiet hamlet of two-hundred odd locals turned from friendly and charming to surly and sinister. 

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The two brothers who owned the restaurant and hostel remained kind and friendly, but they doled out the pay, not my food and camaraderie  Almost overnight, my attempts to acquire the promised meals were met with expressions of shock and confusion along with a bill to be subtracted from my salary. The town’s only other buildings consisted of houses, a post office, and two other two pubs also frequented by my unfriendly neighbors and colleagues. The weather quickly became colder and wetter, and when I wasn’t working I turned to my bed and books for solace and comfort. 

I resorted to sneaking into the local shop and shamefully buying anything I could prepare surreptitiously in the hostel kitchen. I slurped Ramen noodles and toasted bread while reading about Orwell’s true hunger after days of food being a luxury he couldn’t afford. He became my partner in misery. His vivid descriptions of the eccentric characters he lived and worked with led me to view my own environment through the eyes of an unseen onlooker. Rather than focusing on my constant frustration and paranoia, I began to imagine those around me as Orwell might. How would he describe the Russian dishwasher with slow and limited English but swift and roaming hands? Surely he too would inwardly mock the shift-long tirades belted out by our chef, a burly blonde woman who could give Gordan Ramsey a run for his money in the drama department. How would my crew of revolving roommates compare with those he shared guesthouses, homeless shelters, and the later the streets with?

The roommates were a story in themselves. Originally, my friend and I were the only two occupants in a large room with empty beds reserved for future women who might join our team. An executive decision shifted my once safe and stable accommodation, and suddenly the formerly ladies-only beds were opened to anyone who needed them. Since I worked in a rural Irish restaurant/pub, weekends  brought some pretty interesting regulars. Orwell shared with destitute sock darners and thieves posing as Communists. My roommates included a girl who drank far beyond her fill in the pub below and preferred to wake me rather than her parents with seemingly endless moans and bouts of vomiting. Then there was the harmless, yet noisy gent in his late seventies who came like clockwork every weekend. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent listening to sports matches at high volume from his pink-sheeted bed. Nights were even louder, as his perpetual snores competed only with his flatulence for frequency, volume, and melodiousness.

Thankfully, my only permanent roommate was a homesick young Kiwi who was also working “off the books” on the restaurant’s addition. He was as equally miserable and spent most of his evenings writing letters to his fiance and reading books. He wasn’t reading Orwell, but if I hadn’t been holding on to my book for dear life, I might have lent it to him. We remained unspoken outcasts from the noisy pub below, saving our pennies for flights back home since management had somehow managed to exclude us from the “free daily pint” enjoyed by others. We were better off with our books.

The fateful events that took place as I served lunch on September 11th, 2001 increased my loneliness and anxiety even more. The daily news talked of halted air traffic and fear of further attacks and created a mounting dread that I might somehow become trapped in the town I inwardly referred to as the “Peaks of Despair.” Fearful of months, or even years of bringing sea trout, lamb and pints of Guinness to busloads of tourists while the town around me tutted, gossiped and openly insulted me and my country’s vast evils, I retreated even more into Orwell’s words. By now he was homeless and living as a tramp. This was too much for me to bear, and I skipped back to his days in restaurants, being swindled and abused by seemingly everyone he came in contact with. At least I didn’t have it that bad.

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I left only a few weeks later, with a less stable but far friendlier job secured by a good friend in Dublin. As I watched the Peaks of Despair grow smaller through the bus window, I knew that one day, I would look back on my dark days there through an entirely different light. Years later, I even took a friend to see the beauty of the town, and was able to smugly ignore the few people I still recognized.

Orwell was not my guide on a journey down and out, as I was on a quest for experience rather than poverty. My hostel room and service job didn’t begin to compare with his slum accommodation and exploitative labor conditions. He was, however, a great companion. His vision of the world around him helped me emulate his method of interpreting people and situations.  

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Down and Out” showed Orwell’s willingness to publicly share deeply personal experiences of degradation and poverty. His detailed and often merciless depictions of those he encountered were matched with a profound analysis of himself and society as a whole. He taught me to view life as a series of tragi-comedic events, peppered with a cast of complex characters. I try to see the world through the eyes of a self-deprecating narrator, and thus I hope I have developed more empathy, patience, and perhaps most importantly during unpleasant times, humor.

What is your favorite On the Road reading moment? What book have you read during your travels that touched you or changed you? Why not share and enter the On the Road travel blogging competition by publishing company “The Works”?

I nominate these 3 travel blogs:

Leaving Cairo

Expatlogue

In Search of a Life Less Ordinary

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Aside

Waiting for Rain

It’s raining outside. Drops of water are falling from a sky thick with dark clouds, washing the dust from every surface and creating puddles on the ground as I type. Many of my friends’ Facebook statuses mention rain with varying levels of joy and disbelief. Surprised strangers in the shops around me comment to baristas, customers and friends. “Two days in a row! Actual rain! Who’d have thought?” What’s so special about today’s rain? I live in the desert.

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Rain in Dubai.

Gray skies are nothing new in Abu Dhabi. For much of the year, a mixture of fine desert sand, construction dust, and ocean haze blanket our sky in gray or white. Clear blue skies and white clouds are a treat reserved for autumn and winter and compliment the mild temperatures we enjoy for four to five months of the year. Actual rain, however, is a very rare thing. It rained twice my first year in Abu Dhabi. The first storm lasted hours and produced real drops that cascaded down the glassy sides of buildings, poured from spiky palm leaves, and flooded the streets and sidewalks. The second time was just a few minutes of misty droplets that barely wet the objects they touched. It was as if they clouds were empty bottles of cleaning spray sputtering out their last drops.

Two or three episodes of rain a year seem to be the average here. Locals and expats take for granted that the weather will be sunny. There is no need to keep an umbrella or rain jacket in your car or knapsack. Outdoor events are planned based on temperature, not precipitation. Each morning after naming the day of the week, I go through the motions of discussing the weather with my pre-kindergarten students. “Is it rainy today?” I ask, holding a laminated cloud with falling blue raindrops. “Noooooooo” they answer in unison with looks of disdain and giggles. Silly teacher. Not even the four-year-olds are under any illusion the answer will ever be yes.

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The Abu Dhabi coastline seen during a dust storm.

I’ve never been a huge fan of rain. Before moving to the UAE, I associated it with discomfort and dark times. Years spent enduring Ireland’s daily mists, showers, and downpours have made me immune to many of rain’s charms. My heart thrills in the certainty of dry clothing, shoes and hair that accompany life in a desert climate. However, living here has led me to appreciate rain’s necessity. Firstly, it is a great cleanser. When the dust in the air is so thick it clogs my eyes and throat, I wish for rain to freshen the air and bring the scent of damp earth and leaves. On a more sentimental level, I miss the pleasure of snuggling under the covers while raindrops pound against the windows and thunder crashes outside.    

One day my school had a special surprise. In the middle of the children’s Arabic session, it started to rain. They ran to the windows with the same enthusiasm one might expect from the appearance Spiderman, a dinosaur, or other childhood fantasy. I couldn’t help running with them, and quickly opened the windows to hear the sound of the raindrops hitting the ground and the wind rushing through the date palms. My Emirati co-teacher rushed us outside to the covered patio and led the children to pray in unison, thanking Allah for the rain. I found myself joining in. The feeling of magic in the air was unmistakable  It was raining in the desert! This was truly an extraordinary time when anything was possible.

Time to dust off the ol' umbrella.

Time to dust off the ol’ umbrella.

Yesterday it rained again, and this time the children were already outside. The water was wetting the party dresses and kandooras they had worn for our school’s National Day celebrations, yet this unexpected event demanded we remain outdoors. Rain was to be experienced and celebrated. It was a novel and welcomed addition to their playtime, not a reason to end it. Their astonishment was a pleasure to witness. “Matar, matar,” they shouted. Others ran to us with beaming smiles, proud to use their English words, “water” or “rain.” One little girl was so unaccustomed to water falling from the sky that she ran to her Arabic teacher, demanding that she stop another student whom she was sure was spitting in her hair. Her shock and then delight when she realized it was rain had us all laughing.

Nature’s ability to adapt to the most extreme environments will never cease to impress me. Every living thing needs water to thrive, to grow, even to exist. In a place where rain falls only a few times a year and in such small amounts, how does life remain? But it does, and has for thousands of years. Even in the sea of dunes beyond the UAE’s cities and suburbs, life abounds. Lizards, insects, and small plants hide amidst the sand, and let’s not forget the Bedouin tribes who have survived the desert extremes for centuries. Humans are created to adapt to the most unforgiving of circumstances.

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Life in the desert is full of extremes. The heat blisters, chaps and burns. The sand cakes, clogs and chokes. In summer, every living thing seeks shelter from the scorching sun. My mind boggles at how life carries on under such conditions, but it does.

We all experience trials and times of difficulty in our lives, some more than others. We never know when our health, professional lives, and personal lives will be struck by obstacles that seem insurmountable. This world is full of violence, hatred, and suffering, yet so many who have endured the unthinkable exist as living proof that incredible strength lies inside us if we know where to search. I am still learning to stop focusing on my hardships and instead to count my blessings.

Palestinian refugee children show the resilience that lies within us all.

Palestinian refugee children show the resilience that lies within us all.

When life seems impossibly harsh, we must persevere and wait for the rain. Rain not only cleans, it also gives withering plants a second chance and is the catalyst for new life. No matter what creator, (or lack thereof) you believe in, nature demonstrates so beautifully that the universe provides. Sometimes all we need is a good cleansing rain to refresh us and remind us that life goes on. It may just take a little waiting.

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What gets you through times of loneliness, frustration, suffering? Expats, are there any new coping strategies you have found in your travels?

Five Purchases the Saavy Traveller Shouldn’t Miss (or Why I Love SkyMall)

Summertime in the UAE means two things: temperatures outside will compete with those on the surface of the sun, and school holidays begin. This July, I joined the crowds fleeing the crushing heat and humidity to visit home. I love to travel, but I detest flying. Long-distance flights equal desperate hours sandwiched between my cement-hard seat back and the headrest of the reclining passenger in front of me. As my aches and impatience grow by the second, SkyMall magazine has become a small sanctuary in the claustrophobic and sometimes chaotic conditions of economy class.

If you’ve flown a major airline, you have probably seen Sky Mall. Don’t confuse it with the useless Duty Free catalog offering mere perfumes, jewelry and booze or your airline’s in-flight magazine highlighting its destinations and the selection of chips and chocolates priced for the uber-wealthy. I mean the SkyMall. The gem, no, the jewel in the crown of catalogs. Its pages contain a level of consumer bliss adequate to distract passengers from even the worst flight anxiety. Sky Mall is, in its own words,almost universally known among affluent and well-educated travelers who are receptive to innovative, unique products.”

I like to save the magazine as a treat for later in the flight, just as I do the tiny packet of ginger biscuits, or if I’m lucky, the microscopic Toblerone that comes with my meal.  I held out for nearly eleven hours before eagerly lifting it from its pouch. “Can’t get enough sparkle?” asked the cover. Oh SkyMall, you don’t know where I live, do you? I was sad to see this edition seemed a bit thinner than previous ones. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was missing, but I suspect they thinned out the vast array of monogrammed products and fantasy series replicas. I was relieved to see I could still buy my own copy of the One Ring that Rules Them All. Still, I suspected I had been cheated of at least 20 additional minutes of shopping pleasure.

I suppose not even SkyMall is immune to the global economic downturn. However, a quick glance through its pages offers hope to consumers that there is still much we need to spend our limited incomes on. Here are five of my favorites.  

1. The Somawave Helmet

(His enthusiasm is contagious.) 

Who doesn’t like a nice massage to “disconnect from the world we know,” and relieve the stress and tension caused by everyday life. Head/neck massage and vibration on demand? Yes, please. Look at the smile on this man’s face. Here’s an opportunity no one should miss.

SkyMall’s writers point out that Somawave is light and portable, but they should perhaps rethink their claim that it can be taken anywhere. Somawave-wearers might not be well-received in certain public places, and should maybe restrict their usage to the privacy of home. I should also point out the accompanying warning in case any forklift or crane operators are hoping to use this product to avoid workplace stress:

Caution: Do not wear while operating heavy machinery. The SomaWave Helmet’s euphoria inducing waves may produce sleep or trance-like states of consciousness.

Ha. Good luck machinery operator. A person wearing this contraption has about as much chance of entering a blue-collar workplace as they does an airport, government office, or any place with security guards.

Warnings aside, if this product delivers as promised, maybe I should buy a couple to pack safely away in my suitcases. Since most mind-altering substances put me at risk of a lengthy sentence in a UAE prison, followed by deportation, the Somawave could offer a safe and legal evening of euphoria and bliss.

2. Easter Island “Ahu Akivi Moai” Monolith Statue

As an apartment dweller, now is not the time for giant statues, but I can dream. Dear readers, should any of you have access to a rooftop, garden or large balcony, this exotic addition would be perfect for avoiding post-holiday blues. Forget bird baths, fountains, or plastic flamingos. Thanks to Sky Mall’s suggestions, I have realized that no outdoor space is complete without a replica of one of the world’s great mysteries.

Sky Mall promises that King Moai will, “astound and impress guests at your next Polynesian luau.” I’ll keep that in mind. If nothing else, perhaps the giant staring eyes will frighten away pesky animals, trespassers, or nosy neighbors. I should add that the replica is not stone like the original, but is made from high quality resin.  Hosing down any pet or bird-related messes this large object could attract would be a breeze. Recreating Easter Island in my garden was never one of my Pinterest fantasies, but thanks to Sky Mall, I know have great plans for a future outdoor space.

3. LED MagicShowerhead

(Because the shower should be where the magic happens.)

I bet you spend at least a few minutes a week trying to pinpoint what your bathroom is missing. What would make you feel more pampered, more luxurious, more complete? SkyMall has the answer—a more colorful shower.

According to SkyMall, MagicShowerhead illuminates your water with seven different colors, creating an experience to match the needs of its diverse readers. Searching for a “club like experience” in your own bathroom? Four flashy colors (and I’m assuming your own piped-in music) should do the trick. With action like that in the morning, I might not even need my morning coffee. Want to relax? Stop paying for pricey spa visits and create your own “spa-like environment” by setting the colors to slowly fade and change. Even environmentalists can appreciate MagicShowerhead. Three timed alternating colors help you limit your water consumption.  Doing your part to save the planet while enjoying a light show? Priceless.  

This shower head truly is “magic.” All you need to do is choose hand-held, fixed, or both! I don’t know who writes the copy for this magazine, but I want him or her to write my resume, biography, and eulogy. Hats off to this master of modern marketing.

4. Large Super Skate Sail

(How could this possibly end badly?)

My first thought on seeing the Super Skate Sail was, “Wow, that looks like a lot of fun!” SkyMall presents this product as a great way get adults and children outside and away from the TV, so perhaps it could be powerful enough pry me away from my laptop. The Super Skate Sail has three methods of use, so I wouldn’t be limited by my lack of skateboarding skills. I had found a hobby, a new sport I might actually enjoy.

Then practicality set in. There is a reason why sails are usually associated with water sports as opposed to land. The ocean offers pretty much unlimited space. I can’t think of many places in Abu Dhabi that offer adequate room to zoom along uninhibited with wheels and a 9′ by 11′ sail. There’s also the slight issue of creating a spectacle. As a Westerner, I attract enough unwanted attention just by being a minority. Breezing through town with a giant colorful sail (and maybe a matching helmet) would probably just add to the usual stares. The pleasant gulf breezes would most likely propel me from the Corniche walkway into the capital city’s busy streets within minutes. A Lexus SUV/Super Skate Sail collision is the kind of accident that could even make its way into print or broadcast media. SkyMall, you may have let me down this time. 

5. Jeans Lounge Pants

(They’re jeans, they’re pants, they’re perfection!)

SkyMall, you’ve just redeemed yourself.

Fellow American travelers, I’m sure you will be the first to appreciate that this product has not one, but two major benefits. Firstly, fashion. Who wouldn’t want their own pair of what at first glance appears to be stylish, ripped acid-washed denim circa 1991? Wait for it—that’s not denim it’s, “actually super-soft cotton with amazingly realistic front-and-back printing and a much more forgiving stretch.” Americans like forgiving stretch. It goes great with buffets, Thanksgiving, and chili cheese fries. These even have an elasticized drawstring waist. I hear my couch calling.

Secondly, what an incredible souvenir to bring back after a visit from the good ol’ USA! Nothing says, “this came from America” like “jeans” and “lounge.” You can’t lose. Buy a pair for your favorite co-worker, colleague, or friend, and maybe an extra pair for that awkward moment when you are surprised with an unexpected post-vacation gift. There is even a discount for purchasing 2 or more.

You’re welcome.

Taste of Home

One stereotype I’ve frequently heard in my travels is that “Americans are fat,” or more rarely, we are “too obsessed with fitness and gyms.” 37.5% of American adults are obese.* Not, “I need to lose a few pounds to feel fit, “ actually obese. I’m not particularly interested in what the rest of the world thinks about our weight, but I am very concerned about how it affects our next generation. One of the saddest aspects of this issue is that heart disease and diabetes are affecting our population at a younger and younger age. A 2008 study by the Center for Disease Control found that over a third of children and adolescents in the United States were either overweight or obese. 

When I taught in the US, the sad state of my students’ diets was painfully obvious. One day as I watched my students line up, I realized that over half of my class of ten year-olds were overweight, and some of them were quite obese. Fourth graders should sprint across a playground or gym with joy and ease, not wheeze and stop to catch their breath after climbing the ten stairs between our hallway and the art room. They should move with energy and grace, not have difficulty walking due to the size of their thighs. If they wear a size 3XL jacket, it should be due to fashion rather than necessity. Finally, under no circumstances should they have “cankles.” If this the state of a person at ten, what chance of health do they have at forty, fifty, or even thirty?

(Cankles: Not suitable for children)

Some of my students seemed to live on a diet of Hot Cheetos and Doritos. I did not allow them during snack time, but every day they brought giant bags to share in the school cafeteria. The food the school provided did not fare much better. Most meals were 90% refined carbohydrates. Pizza, hamburgers of questionable content, nachos and processed chicken bits molded into a variety of shapes were the weekly staples.

(Because everyone knows Cheetos give you energy for soccer and other sports)

Ten year-olds have limited control over their diets. Parents and teachers can educate children on healthy habits and lifestyles, but give a kid a choice between a roasted chicken sandwich and a Happy Meal, and they will pick the Happy Meal every time. I can’t even place full blame on their parents. I taught in an area of high poverty, and most of my students relied on the school breakfast and lunch as their main source of nutrients and vitamins. In the United States, processed junk food is far more affordable than fresh vegetables and fruits, so schools in districts like my previous one should have made nutrition an even higher priority to match the needs of its students. The lack of fruits, vegetables and whole foods in my students’ diet was a daily source of frustration and sadness for me.

(Let’s guess what parts of the chicken are inside!)

When I moved to the UAE, I expected to see a healthier nation with healthier children. Fruits and vegetables are very inexpensive here, and there are numerous fish markets and butchers with fresh and high quality products. The less processed your diet is, the lower your grocery bill. I would probably spend more on an imported can of chicken soup than I would on the ingredients to make my own. I also teach a population that is not only high income, but also has household staff to prepare healthy and delicious meals. Time and money are not a factor in the diets of 95% of my students. Surely I’d see students eating tasty healthy meals at school. Maybe I’d even get some interesting local recipes from them. Oh, how naive I was.

(My vision)

My colleagues and I spend our days observing our students eat with a mix of shock, amusement and horror. Some students’ schoolbags and lunch boxes  more reminiscent of my post-trick-or-treating Halloween sacks than my school lunches. Students enter the building with lollypops in their mouths, finish snack time with brown mustaches from Nutella sandwiches, and shout goodbye from their buses with mouths full of cookies they didn’t have time to finish during breakfast. The non-sugar contents of their school bags aren’t much better. I don’t worry too much about a small packet of potato chips if part of a balanced meal, but a chocolate sandwich, potato chips, and three types of candies should not fit anyone’s definition of an appropriate breakfast, especially for the growing body and brain of a five-year old. 

(The reality)

A recent study by the World Health Organization showed that a third of Emirati children are overweight or obese.* The education system here is beginning to address this, albeit slowly. As teachers, we’ve created themed units on healthy living and schools offer information days and health screenings for parents as well as students to attend. I’m so proud of my own local co-teacher for enforcing the no-sweets and no-chips rule in our classroom. Every day we praise the children who bring fruit or vegetables, and sweets and chocolate biscuits are immediately confiscated (although sometimes I eat them myself if it’s been a particularly trying day).

I can’t help but wonder where this problem is coming from. I thought that increasing childhood obesity was only a problem in some Western countries. I saw it in the USA, Ireland and the UK, but it didn’t seem as bad in other European countries where diets had more variety and populations were more active. Globalization certainly brought McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s (yeah!) to the UAE, but somehow I can’t accept that it is entirely responsible for a rising obesity epidemic on the Arabian peninsula. What exactly is happening here? One of the most mind-blowing aspects of the chocolate (or processed spreadable cheese) sandwich phenomenon is that it’s taking place in a country with some of the best food options I’ve experienced outside of New York City. 

The UAE is mainly desert, but its proximity to some of the most fertile areas of the planet give us access to a vast variety of fruits and vegetables. If I want to buy eggplant, I have around six different types and colors to choose from. Bananas are the same. I can choose from the standard yellow banana I grew up with, sweet Indian mini-bananas, fat brown ones, or orange flaky ones. The majority-expat population means that supermarkets cater to customers from a number of countries and continents. Not only can I find most of my favorite products from back home, but I can try something new each time I make a grocery run. The same principle applies to restaurants. I rarely go out for “American” food unless I’m craving a good burger. I can find a restaurant from any Asian country I can think of, and the Lebanese and other Middle Eastern restaurants offer the delicious spreads our school lunchtimes are missing. Let’s not forget shawarma and felafel, some of the cheapest and most delicious snack/light dinner foods known to man. I don’t know what I’ll do whenever I leave this region behind. Shawarma cravings are a powerful thing, and they aren’t easy to reproduce at home.

(Lamb, mint, onion, tahina, HEAVEN)

Easy access to ingredients that were once exotic has resulted in new additions to my cooking. My kitchen has become the proverbial melting pot. Exposure to different seasonings and spices means that my black-eyed peas now get a little cumin and turmeric. Hummous, one of my favorite staple snacks and sometimes meals used to mean a trip to Trader Joe’s. Now, tahina is in every store I go to, and I can whip up my own delicious hummous in less than five minutes. I was not exactly born and raised on hummous, in fact, I didn’t know it existed until high school. To my unsophisticated teenage eyes, its beige color and pasty texture did not result in love at first sight. Thankfully we met again in college and began a long and beautiful relationship. Now I enjoy foods from all over the world, and I’ll try most anything as long as I don’t have to promise I’ll like it, even though chances are I will.

(I love you)

One surprising thing I’ve learned in my travels is that wherever I go in this world, I will never be far from one of my childhood comfort foods: fried chicken. Colonel Sanders’ slightly creepy, condescending smile can be seen on street corners around the world. Numerous other chains claiming to serve “Southern” fried chicken are everywhere. It’s not your mama’s fried chicken, my Southern brothers and sisters, and the KFC sides won’t be the same ones you remember from picnics, funerals and family reunions, but if I want battered and deep-fried chicken, I can find it.

(I swear, something’s just not right about the Colonel)

Fried chicken may always be available, but other favorites from home have been difficult to impossible to replace. I’m not convinced I can even find a proper version of one of my all-time favorites, hush puppies, outside of the American South. Hush puppies, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, are one of the simplest culinary pleasures known to man. Take corn meal, season it, add some jalapeno bits if you like, and deep fry them. Eat them with fried seafood. Eat them with anything. You will fall in love before they’ve even finished melting in your mouth.  

(Hush puppies. AKA: Love, deep-fried in grease)

Shrimp and grits, with some white cheddar cheese and hot sauce poured over the top: my mouth waters. The combination of two amazing foods rolled into one bowl of goodness. I pretty much stick to a grain-free diet, but for the occasional bowl of shrimp and grits (with hush puppies, perhaps) I will make an exception. If you’ve never lived in the South, you will not understand grits. They have to be prepared by someone who knows what they are doing, and when they are, they are a treat.

I will never figure out why Mexican/Tex Mex cuisine can not successfully travel beyond the continent of North America, but in my experience, it just can’t. Despite the availability of most of the ingredients, the chef is bound to offer a bizarre international interpretation of a dish or use some horribly inappropriate substitute for a crucial component. If I had to choose one Mexican food I miss the most, it would be the one I gorge myself on whenever I visit the States: chorizo. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that is wonderful with anything. Eat it with eggs, tacos (my favorite) or just a giant fork. I miss the smell, the texture, and the flavorsome red oil that soaks everything it touches. Buying my ticket for a visit home starts the chorizo countdown every time.

(just one evening of last year’s chorizo-fest)

I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have access to my favorites from back home in addition to my local favorites here. If I did, I’d probably end up making my own personal contribution to the UAE’s obesity statistics. It would be difficult to model healthy eating habits to my students with chorizo grease trailing down the front of my abaya or to praise Abdullah’s apple slices through a mouthful of shrimp and grits.

Missing food from home gives me yet another commonality with the UAE’s diverse expat community. You can ask people from Canada, Nepal or the Sudan: it doesn’t matter how many ingredients or restaurants you can find that look just like the ones in your own country. Nothing tastes quite the same when you’re far from home. Fried chicken is best enjoyed near magnolia trees instead of palms, just like felafel tastes better when the call to prayer and grape-scented sheesha smoke drift through the streets. Those irreplaceable, non-portable favorites just gives us one more thing to look forward to when we get home.

Question: What foods do you love the most about countries you have visited or lived in? What foods do you miss the most from your home?

Addition:  Please visit this excellent website for a fast and FREE way to contribute to organizations working to feed those in need all over the world.  All you have to do is click the button and the website’s advertisers will donate the equivalent of 1.1 cup of food to a needy person.  Want to do more?  Donate more or purchase some of the lovely fair-trade items for sale on the site.  10 seconds or less a day to help eradicate world hunger…

http://www.thehungersite.com/clickToGive/home.faces?siteId=1

References:

1): http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

2: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm

3: http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/health/official-concern-grows-over-rising-child-obesity

Expat-riotic?

I’ve spent nearly eight years of my adult life living abroad, and I hope to spend many more experiencing other countries and cultures. This is not a result of negative feelings or experiences I had growing up in the United States. I could write pages of pros and cons for all 3 countries I’ve lived in, and will always love the USA for what it’s given me and my family. I view my attraction to expat life as more of a personality trait. It keeps me stimulated and challenged, and I feel renewed and energized by the dramatic changes to my environment every few years. In a recent conversation, I was told, “If you want to learn about other countries, watch travel shows. If you want to learn about yourself, travel.” I wholeheartedly agree. However, I do often wonder how my time living abroad affects my national identity and my relationship with my native country.

Eighty percent of the UAE’s population are expatriates. I spend my day’s tasks speaking with people from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and numerous Arab and Western countries. We communicate in the UAE’s own brand of English, with varying degrees of success. When taxi drivers or others who hold me as a captive audience ask where I’m from, I often claim Ireland rather than America because it’s about as neutral a country as I can think of. I get a few comments on a past cricket-related tragedy from some of the Pakistani drivers, but that’s about all people can say about the place, and many don’t know where it is. Cricket is very serious to a lot of people, but pales in comparison with Guantanamo, Israel/Palestine, and whatever bombs America has recently dropped on the native country of the person I’m speaking with. Some Americans reading this now might be shaking their heads in disgust or disappointment at my lack of patriotism, but sometimes I’d rather sell out to a stranger than suffer through an unwelcome political tirade after a stressful day at work or at the start of a relaxing evening out. And for any Irish readers, don’t get too angry with me. I do hold dual-citizenship, so I have slightly more legitimacy than most Americans that claim to be Irish ;-).

(Can you see the teddy bear?)

(Such a huggable, friendly nation.)

When I visit home and speak with family, friends and others, I often feel unusual as an expat. Only 2% of Americans live overseas, compared to an estimated 10 and 20 per cent of the British and Irish populations, respectively. The opportunities available due to our size and economy have allowed most of us the luxury of remaining cocooned in our own country. For most Americans, life abroad is restricted to a college semester, or a week volunteering with a church. Unless you are in the military, spending extended periods of time abroad is usually a lifestyle decision rather than a necessity.

Does spending long periods of our lives abroad make us less patriotic, or just different? Do we owe our countries more by virtue of our birth and experiences there, or in today’s global community have things changed? As an overseas resident, I’m not required to pay taxes, so I’m not contributing anything to my country financially. At the same time, I’m not paying into Social Security, so if I return here for the later years of my life, I will not be able to rely on much financial support from the government. Dollars aside, I don’t feel that my individual absence is robbing the US of much. We are a nation of immigrants, so I’m not contributing to brain drain, especially with a degree in Political Science. The US is more like a brain vacuum. Most of our best and brightest stay, and we attract many of the best and brightest from other countries. 

Living abroad has definitely reduced my activities as a politically involved and informed citizen. Again, this stems from my own personal choices and preferences. While many expats from the US and other countries seek out detailed news on their home countries from their families and media, I tend to shy away from a lot of it. I’m constantly frustrated by my country’s domestic and foreign politics, but while social media provides a myriad of opportunities for activism, I’ve found myself using my expat status as an excuse to sit back and watch events that disgust me with a sense of disconnect. When it comes to voting, you’d better believe I have my absentee ballot ready. Beyond that, my attempts to keep up with current affairs back home are mostly restricted to watching The Daily Show. Somehow, since it’s thousands of miles away, I have found it preferable to choose blissful ignorance over activism on a number of current events that upset and anger me. Friends back home post articles and discussions on Facebook about an issue or disturbing development, and rather than looking into how I can change it, I quickly click onto something less upsetting. This not only lets my country down (well, those with the same political views that I have), but makes me disappointed in myself. I take a shameful comfort in the fact that I live far away from these happenings, even though in my heart I know I should take a stand, even from across many miles. 

(You should be ashamed of yourself, young lady!)

That said, living abroad has made changes to my heart and soul that I would never dream of reversing. One of my favorite travel quotes states, “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living (Miriam Beard).” When a person lives abroad, it is impossible for their personality, their views, and even their ways of thinking to remain static. If we do not adapt to our surroundings, we will not survive, and will fly back to the comfort of our home and its familiar surroundings. When we move into a new culture, we must immediately become active observers rather than passive participants.

We are bombarded by the sensory overload of new sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and there is much to be learned from each. The language barrier is obvious and expected, but gestures and facial expressions may have subtle differences that carry important meanings. Voices of our host citizens may be louder or softer than our own, and we may need to change the methods by which we get the attention of others. In many countries, the expat will always stand out simply by our physical appearance, but we learn how to dress and behave to appear as one with awareness of and respect for our host culture.  

As we observe, we must constantly question, “why?” But here lies the key to true gain from traveling or living abroad. We as expats or travelers must decide How to ask Why, and What we will do with the answers.  This determines the speed with which we pass through the stages of culture shock, and brings about profound change.  The answers may surprise, please, or infuriate us. We may learn something that upsets us, confuses us, or excites us tremendously. We may see errors or injustice in a particular practice, or we may want to adopt it as our own. We may, heaven forbid, face the realization that the way we have always done something is not necessarily the best way. Sometimes, we may just accept the difference as what it is: difference. Isn’t this what life is about no matter where we live?

It’s the constant observing, questioning and adapting that makes me feel so alive when I travel. Life is more about the moment than the past or the future. I don’t always have time for deep analysis. The newer and more alien the environment, the more aware and reactive I must be. I become more conscious of the social dynamics of my immediate environment and empathetic towards the moods and motivations of others. If I can successfully navigate my way through an unknown city and make a purchase in a different language in a busy market, months or weeks later, my first days in a new workplace in my own country and culture will pale in comparison. The survival skills I develop as a traveler translate to sharpened social skills when the journey ends.

Time to return to my original question. How does living abroad affect my national identity and relationship with my home country? My country won’t miss me that much, but what happens to me as I spend more time away from it? When others question me about my country, can I offer less insight as someone who has spent an increasingly smaller percentage of my life in the country of my birth, or more insight as one who has experienced the practices and beliefs of other cultures? Can I effectively and accurately attempt to translate American ideas and practices into a context a non-National can understand?

Living abroad has certainly broadened my outlook compared to a typical US Citizen. Watch an American news broadcast. How much of the broadcast is dedicated to domestic stories compared to foreign affairs? Very little. In most countries, this ratio would be far different, or even reversed. I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to experience other cultures, practices and other religions. I’ve spent the past year and a half being reasonably content and successful in a place that is ignored, misunderstood, or even feared by the majority of the US population. I’ve seen first-hand just how much media influences American perceptions of the rest of the world, and I’ve also experienced just how much of an effect tiny decisions in our country have on others.

As I become less familiar with the subtleties of American pop culture and the latest fashion trends, I become more aware of US Foreign Policy and the strong effects it has on the rest of the world. I’ve seen the magnitude of our place in the world, and how little we know about it. The media doesn’t give us much of an idea what’s going on outside our borders, and we spend most of our lives inside our daily bubbles of work, family and sports. The rest of the world doesn’t have such luxury.  They are forced to be aware of us because our decisions affect their sovereignty.  

There is another world beyond our borders. We can’t ignore it. We affect it daily. We build allies and burn bridges constantly while our lives go on and on. Our policies affect those in places the average American has never heard of. This, in turn, creates political allies and enemies that affect us. My identity as an American has indeed changed significantly. I see myself as a global citizen. My actions, all our actions, affect more than just ourselves. Here is where more shame lies in my current political apathy. My vague idea of America’s involvement throughout the world should encourage me to be even more informed and active in the decisions my government makes. I have the opportunity for dialogue with those from other countries affected by my government’s daily decisions. What are their experiences, opinions and desires?

Questions: If you have lived or traveled extensively abroad, what was your greatest benefit from the experience? How do you think living abroad affects your relationship with your country of birth? For expat readers, what would it take to make you go home?

S#*t Women Say–UAE Style

Facing cultural differences is one of the joys and challenges of expatriate life. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy living abroad. If I weren’t fascinated by different cultural practices, I would have stayed safely in the United States. Before traveling to a new country for a weekend visit, or two year contract, I do a bit of research in order to learn about my guest culture and to be as sensitive and educated as possible. However, I’ve learned the hard way, that no matter how many “Living and Working in (insert country here)” books I read, I can’t avoid the reality that I, as a foreigner, will frequently misread a situation completely or say something I later find out is culturally inappropriate. I’ve had to embrace the fact that my time abroad will be full of moments ranging from slightly awkward to completely mortifying. After the embarrassment is over, I have to hope that the experiences will make entertaining stories for others, or will at least result in some type of character development. One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the most surprising differences are the ones that jump at you when and where you least expect them.

I was born and raised in the Southern United States. Part of my heart will always remain in Atlanta, Georgia. Southern culture, like any culture, holds much to be proud of and much that could be improved on. Southern women in particular have a highly complex set of rules that we learn about navigating the social realm, and these rules make deep roots. One of the first lessons little Southern girls learn is the etiquette regarding comments on the appearance of others. We are rarely honest about appearance to a person’s face. If a woman gets a new haircut, we rave about how good she looks whether the style is red-carpet worthy, or could easily be mistaken for a stray poodle. New makeup? “Beautiful!” Neon orange spandex jumpsuit? “How flattering, girl!” “Don’t be silly, you don’t look fat in those skinny jeans.” Any negative comments, no matter well intended, are viewed as a deliberate insult, and usually result in hurt feelings, offense, or anger. If we detect a desire for a genuine opinion on something that looks bad, we can be honest, but we choose our words with the caution of a watchmaker unless the asker is a family member or extremely thick-skinned. Is this practice insincere? Maybe. Is it fake? Yeah, I guess so. Is it expected? Absolutely. It’s just the way we do things down South. It probably has a lot to do with our reputation for out-of-date hairstyles and fashion. No one has the heart to tell anyone how bad they look. Blame it on our blood—In the South, we just don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, at least when we are present to face the consequences.

(This lady is obviously Southern, or someone would have stopped her from going out like this.)

The negative side of this rule rears its ugly face the moment a woman leaves the room. Behind a person’s back, my Southern Sisters and I have free reign to think and speak freely, and speak freely we do. We focus on minute details you’d need a microscope to examine, and make comparisons and analogies worthy of a Pulitzer prize. Southern women can be extremely two-faced, and this can be very hurtful. However, since it follows the rules we learned as children, we are far more prepared to hear critiques of our appearance second-hand, than to our face.

Even though I’ve lived in other countries and am used to slightly more honesty regarding appearance, years of training on denial and avoidance runs deep. I used to tell my students back home, “if you don’t have something nice to say about a person, don’t say it at all.” Not so much here in the UAE. I work in an all-female environment, and the authority and bluntness local women employ when discussing appearance has been a source of surprise and amusement since my first few days here.

My colleagues and I were some of the first foreign employees to work at our school. We were welcomed, yet viewed with a mix of fascination and trepidation. Different preferences in clothing, hair styles, and application of make-up has been observed and commented on by both sides. These differences have led to numerous amusing, unexpected, and thankfully innocent encounters. Like women everywhere, Emirati women are obsessed with meeting the ideal weight and body structure, and the significant weight loss I achieved during my first year here made me a constant object of attention and discussion, mostly in a language I can still barely speak.

Weight is a sensitive topic with women. In the South, if it’s handed poorly, it will quickly result in tears, or passive aggression at a minimum. Here, discussion of weight combines brutal honesty with what I really, really hope is a love for exaggeration. Frequent and sincere compliments on my weight loss were always accompanied by lively comparisons to how I looked when I first began work. These “before and after” conversations always involved wild animated facial expressions and gestures that have convinced me that I must surely have been mistaken for a whale, rather than a new teacher. I should really have taken more photos of myself on arrival, because apparently, not only did my face resemble a blowfish, but my hips and rear were so large, I must have unknowingly been knocking over chairs and tables as I circulated around my classroom. I’m grateful my thunderous footsteps did not cause damage to the windows and skylights, and I’m surprised I was able to squeeze through the classroom door openings.

(Me pre-weight loss—according to the miming)

None of these actions or pantomines were meant to hurt me in the slightest, and were used as an addition to their compliments. They always included multiple repetitions of Mashalla (as God wishes) to reinforce this fact, and the women hounded me for diet and exercise secrets. I will never cease to be amazed by the drama and attention given to a subject that is actually quite personal, and a potential emotional minefield. Thank God I have a sense of humor, and my Southern training made me retell the stories and gestures with my friends (behind the women’s backs of course) as I convulsed with laughter rather than tears. Had this happened in the South, such “insults” would have made it impossible for me to return to the workplace.

I am not alone in my experience of blunt and dramatic comments on my appearance by teachers from non-Western countries.  One friend was pulled aside while teaching to hear another teacher’s urgent concern for her taste in lipstick. Apparently, no one could tell that she was wearing it, and her favorite color was wasting her time and money. My friend’s response that she preferred natural colors was dismissed with speed and authority, and she was advised to switch to a brighter color as soon as possible.  The gain of a few grams of weight is immediately announced, usually with a lot of finger-pointing to the area of concern, and advice on how to lose it quickly follows.  Another favorite question experienced by many of my associates is, “What’s wrong with your face?” The feature causing such alarm could be freckles, a suntan, or even acne. It seems that several local teachers serve dual roles as cosmetic/fashion police, and their duties are often given priority over instructional time. Beauty discussions are very important, and are neither subtle, nor restricted to tea break conversation.

The importance of beauty during and outside of work came as a small surprise to me. The national dress for Emirati women is the abaya, a graceful black gown that can be completely plain, or covered in elaborate designs. It is worn outside the home, over a woman’s other clothing. All Emirati, and most other Muslim women here wear a hijab or shayla that covers most or all of their hair. A smaller percentage of women choose to wear gloves and the niqab, a veil that covers their face except for their eyes. Part of the reasoning behind veiling is to bring the focus away from women’s physical attributes and more towards their personality and abilities.

(Some particularly blinging abayas and shaylas)

(A woman wearing the niqab)

I’d previously read several articles and websites on veiling to educate myself not only on the religious and cultural traditions behind veiling, but on the opinions of the women themselves. I kept reading about the liberation felt by women who veil by choice. I could truly appreciate how wearing the hijab or even the niqab could be freeing rather than restricting, and several quotes really spoke to me:

The idea behind that was that the sexuality of one didn’t influence the other, so that men and women would treat each other like equal human beings,” *

“It keeps me protected from the fashion industry. The hijab liberates you from the media, brainwashing you into, Buy this, buy that, you’re supposed to look like this,” she says. “It allows me to be who I am. I don’t have to worry about being popular through buying things that are ‘cool’.” *

The definition of beauty is ever-changing; waifish is good, waifish is bad, athletic is good – sorry, athletic is bad. Women are not going to achieve equality by putting their bodies on display, as some people would like to have you believe. That would only make us party to our own objectification. True equality will be had only when women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.”*

(Bikini vs Burqa)

Women dressed in such a way would be protected not only from men’s lusty stares, but from men’s judgment of our worth based on beauty alone. Sadly, what living here has reinforced for me is that as women, we can escape men, but we can not escape ourselves.

Emirati women, just like their Western counterparts, are bombarded by advertisements and reminders of what their bodies and features are lacking.  My current job offers me daily opportunities to see what lies beyond the veils.  Beneath their shaylas and abayas, many women of this country enhance their faces with elaborate makeup, decorate their hands and feet with intricate henna designs, and beautify themselves from head to toe using every product and procedure possible. Like Western women, my Arabic sisters eagerly track down products and guidance in constant pursuit of the ideal of beauty.

In my particular school, all of the women are married and at least half of them don the niqab when they are outside. That means that the only males who see their faces are their sons, husbands, many of whom are living or frequently travel abroad, and certain male family members. So who do we dress up at work for? Why do so many of us, myself included, spend time carefully applying makeup and hair products to spend our day working with small children and other women?  Because we constantly scrutinize our own appearance and the appearance of other women.  It is impossible to escape assessment by our own gender.

Did you get a little fat?”  “This dress is very nice on you.” “Why you no straighten hair today?”  We are constantly critiqued as well as complimented. I’m just as guilty as the next woman. “Threading is so cheap here, why can’t she just get rid of that unibrow?”  “Wow, look how much she bleaches her skin. I’ve never seen a person that color.”  “Look at her in that tight abaya. Who does she think she is?”  We are so quick to note and comment on other women, and sadly it is negative far more often than positive.  Are we so insecure, that we must be harsh on others in order to protect ourselves?

Standards and definitions of beauty differ throughout countries, cultures and classes, but the desire to be beautiful is worldwide. It’s not just about men—-hardly. Perhaps those with a stronger background in feminist theory would argue that this all stems from patriarchal culture, but I’m looking at the practicalities of daily life rather than complex theories of origin. I feel that subconsciously, I often work harder to impress the women in my life than I do the men. Let’s be honest with ourselves.  We look to other women for reassurance and validation on our own appearance.  We judge ourselves by a far higher standard and focus in on tiny details that most men would never dream of.  We examine, question and critique each other with a ferocity that never ceases to amaze me.

I began this post by comparing the frankness my host culture uses when discussing beauty with the Southern way of “softening the truth.”  We may use different words and methods, but I believe no matter how much we choose to cover or uncover, women the world over judge each other according to their appearance.  We can cloak ourselves from head to toe and hide every millimeter of skin from men, but we will never escape the eyes of other women.

I admit I have not yet braved this subject with local women, and I wonder if they would agree with my opinion. Perhaps the honesty and openness they employ when discussing appearance shows a comfort with their flaws that I as a non-hijabi Westerner do not have.  Maybe the equality and liberation they feel beneath the shaylas and niqabs extends to their relations with other women, and the harshness I describe is purely a reflection of my own insecurity.  Living in a different culture affords me the opportunity to answer these questions, and my next step should be to find the courage to ask them.

Question: Do you agree that women are each other’s harshest critics when it comes to appearance?

*References:

Quote 1: http://old.post-gazette.com/headlines/20011028muslimwomennat3p3.asp

Quote 2: http://www.islamfortoday.com/hijabcanada4.htm

Quote 3: http://www.iisna.com/articles/pamphlets/the-hijab-reflections-by-muslim-women/

Hairy Little Devils

Monkeys are exotic creatures to the average North American. We share our outdoors with birds, squirrels, and lizards, but our exposure to monkeys is mostly limited to television and zoos. This all changed for me when my travels reached Africa and Asia. Monkeys became a fairly common feature of forests and even urban streets. My travel buddies enjoyed our frequent monkey spottings, but my anxiety increased with each encounter. Rather than whipping out my camera and getting as close as possible, I found myself cringing in fear and instinctively gripping anything I might use as a shield or weapon. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like monkeys? Look at how cute they are!” My friends were perplexed and probably embarrassed by my public discomfort. 

Yes, apes are our closest relatives.  I respect their intelligence and am saddened when they are victims of mistreatment or cruelty.  That doesn’t change the fact that they have scared the crap out of me since I was five.  I once found them just as cute as the rest of you do.  Then one day after Kindergarten, my mother took me to a pet store where a tiny monkey in an even tinier diaper sat in a cage.  I walked towards it quietly, hoping for some cute monkey chirps or even a trick or two.  Instead it turned, bared two rows of pointed teeth and released an impossibly loud hiss.  It was a hiss of deep, dark hatred.  That monkey wanted nothing more than to pry open the bars of its cage and rip my eyes from my five year-old skull with its tiny opposable thumbs.  I was led from the store in tears.  Still, I’m grateful for that moment of terror because it taught me the truth about city- or cage-dwelling monkeys. 

I apologize in advance to monkey owners, fans, or others who may be offended by this post.  I do not write as a personal attack, rather as a way to deal with my own fears and beliefs.  Feel free to share your opinion by leaving a comment, or skip this altogether and wait for my next post, which will not be primate-related.  For the rest of you, listen and learn, my dear readers and/or future travel partners.  Listen and learn.

5 Reasons Monkeys Should Frighten You 

1.  Monkeys are strong, emotionally volatile, and can cause can cause us serious bodily harm.  

When I see a monkey, especially one that is within a ten foot range, a little red danger sign starts flashing deep within my primal brain.  Monkeys are wild animals; highly intelligent, powerful, and dexterous wild animals.  If they feel threatened, they will do whatever it takes to protect themselves without the human fears of arrest or detention.  

I’m not an expert on actions that make monkeys feel threatened, but I imagine there are many that we would never consider.  My fear of monkeys stems from a strong conviction that all monkeys see me as a potential threat, and are thus seconds away from pouncing on my chest and tearing off my face. “She was right,” my travel buddies would say as the air filled with my muffled screams and the monkey’s triumphant screeches. “We should have been more afraid and less adoring of these creatures.”

I bet you are thinking I’m exaggerating or overreacting, but this has actually happened at least once. In 2009, an American woman lost her face, hands, vision, and nearly her life after a vicious attack by her friend’s pet chimpanzee. I don’t mean to joke about or make light of this tragedy, instead I mention it to add weight to my reasons monkeys are not to be trusted. You can read the story here, and youtube it if you want to see the Oprah interview, but I want to give a very clear disclaimer that the damage was severe, and the images are very disturbing..

http://articles.cnn.com/2009-02-17/us/chimpanzee.attack_1_charla-nash-chimp-attack-sandra-herold?_s=PM:US

 In fact, don’t search “monkey attack” in google images either. That experience was nearly enough for me to create a 6th reason to fear monkeys.  

Okay, I admit the chances of losing my face to a monkey are low, but monkey attacks are real, and they are serious! In 2007, the late Deputy Mayor died in his New Delhi home after a monkey attack on his own terrace.  

http://delhigreens.com/2007/11/06/the-monkey-menace-turns-fatal/

This poor man went onto his terrace, perhaps for a coffee and fresh air, and never came back because of the evil little critters silly tourists actually like to feed!  If holding a political office and having a ridiculously gorgeous actor for a son can’t protect you from a swarm of vicious monkeys, what will?

(If his dad can be attacked by monkeys, no one is safe!)

2. Angry monkeys throw feces. 

 Do I really need to explain why this is a problem?  Most of you probably still think monkeys are cute and funny, so clearly I do. Here goes.  We’ve all gotten upset and used cruel and possibly vulgar language at least once in our lives.  Admit it, you’ve also thrown, punched, broken or smashed something to smithereens out of sheer temper.  However, it is well known that monkeys have their own unique method of combining the sweet release of throwing an object with the gratification of degrading someone who has offended them.  

(Actual warning sign at a South African Nature Preserve)

I have to admit that a small part of me gives monkeys props for having the guts to actually DO the foulest, most contemptuous act I can think of.  Nonetheless, I don’t care to be within range of creature that is known for this sort of behavior.  I never, ever want to be involved in a monkey-feces incident, and avoiding monkeys in general should be a good guarantee I will never face this situation.

(Keep your distance.  They look a little angry!)

3.  Monkeys and humans do not share the same etiquette regarding activities that are appropriate in public, and those that should be strictly private.

Reason number two above eluded to this fact, but the problem is that primates’ tendency towards disturbing behavior is not limited to times of anger.  In fact, when monkeys aren’t eating or sleeping, they are sure to be shamelessly engaging in behaviors that most people would never even dream of, or at least admit to doing, even in an empty house behind closed doors.  The mother-child lice grooming is sort of sweet in its own way I guess, although the resulting eating of the lice quickly ruins that effect.  

(We’ve only just begun…)

Everyone laughs uncomfortably when monkeys play with themselves, as long as it doesn’t go on for too long.  It’s the depth and intensity of monkeys’ exploration, examination, and manipulation of their body parts, functions and fluids that sets my gag reflex on maximum.  Want to see something disgusting?  Visit a zoo and sit outside a monkey enclosure for a while.  Twenty minutes should be more than enough time.  

The smarter the species, the more horrendous the show will be.  Chimpanzees are like a winning lotto ticket when it comes to unspeakable acts, and they will etch images of horror into your mind that even a sandblaster couldn’t clear.  I won’t share my own traumatic zoo experience here, but feel free to leave a comment with your email should you wish to spend a few days fasting, or perhaps curled in a corner in the fetal position.

4.  The media and toy manufacturers frequently remind us of monkeys’ intrinsic creepiness.

Monkeys are like clowns.  While many think they are amusing or entertaining. enlightened others like myself see the evil inside.  Thankfully, we have Hollywood to remind us of the truth.

Hello?  I’m going to have nightmares after just reading the intro.  How many movies like this exist about puppies or kittens?  That’s because they aren’t inherently evil!  Look at that toy.  Do you think someone made it look scary just for the movie?  Do you think it’s the only monkey toy out there that looks like this?  No.  You can show me adorable 80s sock monkeys until the cows come home, but the rest of the world bombards me with far too many scary images to change my mind about them.

5.  Monkeys are the source of the plague, rage, and/or zombie apocalypse that will ultimately destroy our civilization.

Most films containing red-eyed, flailing, flesh eating creatures begin with a minor mishap between an unfortunate, unsuspecting, and underpaid scientist and an infected primate.  This fact alone should be enough to make us wary of monkeys lurking beyond the boundaries of a jungle or rainforest.  Did you nonbelievers learn nothing from Dustin Hoffman chasing that monkey in his clean suit? 

Even so, you don’t have to be a huge fan of zombie films or Robin Cook thrillers to notice the link between our closest species and terrifying epidemics.  If a plague involves bleeding from every orifice or your skin falling from your bones, you can catch it from a monkey.  Forget global warming, climate change, and the end of the Mayan Calendar.  Every year, some new health scare makes headlines, and the virus that will wipe us out like a summer disaster flick is the culmination of the primates’ plot to get us.  Humans can hunt them, cage them, experiment on them, and dress them in humiliating outfits, but our day of reckoning will inevitably come, and it will come from their hairy little hands.

(This guy definitely had it coming.)

Monkeys are at the lower end of the food chain now, but they will happily pick lice, examine their privates, and angrily throw feces long after our future zombie selves have eaten the appendages of Earth’s last surviving human.

 These 5 arguments aside, even after my critique of monkey behavior and their plan to destroy life as we know it, I still can’t really blame that monkey for hissing at me when I was a child.  It was an intelligent creature spending its days caged in a pet shop. The brightest future it faced was adoption by some childless woman who would dress it in doll clothes, rock it like a baby, and force it to watch re-runs of bad 70s sitcoms. 

I’ll add some balance to my diatribe of fear and disgust with some links showing how monkeys are incredible, at a distance. The two podcasts are long, but fascinating and well worth your time.

http://www.npr.org/2006/07/08/5503685/a-voluble-visit-with-two-talking-apes

http://www.radiolab.org/2010/feb/19/kanzi/

http://www.radiolab.org/2010/feb/19/lucy/

Maybe I should consider monkeys as I do other wild animals; with a healthy dose of respect, rather than fear and mistrust.  After all, elephants could trample me in a second, but I still love them.  Then again, maybe I should hold on to my convictions, and worriedly await the day when my work abroad brings me to live in a place where monkeys roam free. 

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