Weekly Photo Challenge: Mediterranean Afterglow

Mediterranean Afterglow

This week’s challenge is all about harmony, and I instantly thought of my last day at sea. The cloudy skies, the colors, the chill of the open Mediterranean…it all came together for an unusual – but utterly gorgeous – moment in my adventure. A larger version is viewable here.

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From Morocco To America: One Rug, Many Memories

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about the surreal. As in, one of the most surreal experiences you’ve ever had. I’ve had more than my share; pretty sure I’ve at least mentioned almost drowning in Thailand, fighting a house fire, sleeping overnight in a deserted LAX, going to the top of Gibraltar, and going on a 900-mile road trip around Hawaii’s Big Island. But aside from a single photo – my only functional camera back then was an iPod 4 Touch – I haven’t mentioned my brief time in Morocco.

Back in early 2011, I was lucky enough to take a trip with my mother to Málaga. Most tourists traveling to Spain would rather spend their time in Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville. While we got to see that last one, I didn’t particularly mind. It was only my second time in Europe, and it was Pablo Picasso’s home town. No way I’d turn that down. If anything, I was more concerned with Mom. Back then, she and I approached vacations quite differently; she was typically spur-of-the-moment and incessantly pestered locals with questions, while I was a methodical planner and standoffish. We’ve both mellowed over the last few years. She’s far more willing to listen to my advice and navigation, and I’m bolder and more random in my adventures. But back then? We could barely agree on where to go for dinner.

Tension mounted when Mom found and signed us on with local tour group going to Morocco. I chafed at the idea; we’d been in Spain for only a day and a half, and she already wanted to visit another country? It was a foolish sentiment in retrospect – these days I’d kill for a $50 trip to another continent – but I was more concerned with logistics. How long would it take to get there? What would we see? Can the people running this tour group be trusted? Where is the American embassy in case something happens? Our cell phones didn’t work; how would we find each other in case we got separated? These questions are kind of important. This was happening in May 2011; the Arab Spring was just getting underway in Morocco. Mom just shrugged and said to roll with whatever happens, and I inwardly cringed and prepared for the worst.

The bus arrived around dawn. Two hours later, we were on board a ferry at Tarifa – a serious contender for the Windiest Port Ever – and en route to Tangier. For all you curious San Francisco Bay Area commuters out there, it was comparable to going from the Ferry Building to Jack London Square; nice accommodations, a little crowded, and far too brief. After taking another bus into the older part the city – the protests hadn’t reached that far yet – we stopped and had lunch. Not only was there live belly dancing, but the host generously gave me a little bundle of their spices after I asked and complimented the food. Didn’t declare that when I went through customs…

Afterwards, all that was left for the afternoon was exploring the medina. Take your favorite farmer’s market, multiply it by a hundred, and you’ll get a sense of what it was like. I could spend months exploring all the nooks and crannies. Everywhere you turned, there was another ancient arch, mosaic, stairs, and art. It’s more than a shopping area; this place has survived more than 2,000 years, maintaining the heritage and culture of its people. Like any typical American kid raised on Safeway and Costco, I was pretty sheltered when it came to shopping abroad. This section of Tangier rocked my world. It seemed to stretch on infinitely, each stand and counter crammed with every food and item imaginable. To this day, I still recommend the medina for anyone looking for fresh food; it may not be shrink-wrapped, but you’ll never find such an amazing and delicious selection anywhere else. I looked at Mom to see how she was taking it.

That’s when things started getting weird.

Like I said, Mom wasn’t exactly the planning type. But I didn’t know the extent of it until I realized she’d traveled to Africa fully decked out in heels and jewelry. It was like having a big, neon, “Look at me, I’m a rich American!” sign on her back. The local peddlers certainly noticed; we had a small group of people trying to sell her stuff the moment we were outside. Unlike other tourist-driven places, these vendors didn’t give up when we walked away; they kept following us. That’s worrisome, as my mother is about 4’10” and could be easily confronted or even grabbed by an aggressive passerby. I’m normally spared that kind of attention; aside from being a guy, my olive skin tone usually lets me pretend to be a local. But not here. I was bombarded with offers, especially for cigarettes. After being turned down, one grizzled old fellow just laughed and said, “Do not worry! I know America! I come to Alabama with a banjo on me knee!

I didn’t fully appreciate how weird that moment was until later. I was halfway around the world, deep in a foreign port, trying to keep an eye on my mother, surrounded by merchants, and being heckled by an old man singing the lyrics to Oh! Susanna. It was quickly forgotten, though. Mom had to use the restroom, and the only option was to allow one of our guide’s assistants escort her to one nearby. I could only watch in silent apprehension as she disappeared around a corner, and hope I was just being paranoid. I stayed with the tour for another half an hour, but she still hadn’t returned. I was about to talk to the guide, when we entered a stylish rug showroom. The Moroccan rug industry is huge; vintage works go for thousands online. But there I was, right at the source. In middle of it all, my mother was haggling with the merchant. Apparently, she’d decided to skip ahead of the group, went shopping, and wanted to buy one of the most expensive souvenirs ever.

I understand why Mom wanted it. It was a beautiful piece of handwoven art. The intricate patterns of browns and blacks were absolutely stunning. It could’ve been put on exhibit in a museum. However, it was also bigger than any floor in her house; at best, she’d have to hang it on a wall. I briefly tried talking her out of it, but she hadn’t spent all of that time negotiating with the merchant for nothing. They offered a special shipping service to America – for an extra fee, of course – but Mom politely turned him down and said we’d take it back ourselves. And by that, she meant me. How much she spent on it was her business, but getting it back home was suddenly mine. The merchant was kind enough to get the rug bundled, but nothing else. So, I awkwardly lugged 50-plus lbs of luxurious, authentic Moroccan rug through the bustling streets of Tangier, onto the bus, across the Strait of Gibraltar via ferry, and another bus back to Málaga. It was kind of like backpacking…if your backpack was huge, off-balance, and didn’t have any practical use. I got quite a few confused stares and questions from fellow travelers, but I could only shrug wearily and say it was Mom’s idea.

Getting the rug out of Morocco was tricky enough. But getting it to America required some Tetrisstyle puzzle solving. You think getting bags checked is tedious? Try smuggling a rug sometime.The only feasible option was to somehow cram the rug in Mom’s rolling luggage bag, but there wasn’t enough room for her clothes and toiletries. I tend to pack light, so there was just enough room for her stuff in my bag. It took a few tries (and a sacrifice of two boxes of chocolates, sadly), but we got it to work. At the end of the week, we got our hidden treasure through customs in Madrid and checked in with the airline without any extra charges. We thought we were home free…until we got back to SFO and discovered that the rug had gone missing in transit. Because it just couldn’t be that easy. I think I was more livid than Mom at that point; I hadn’t hauled that thing all the way from Africa for it to simply disappear. It was eventually found and delivered the next day, and my mother finally got the rug she’d wanted.

…It’s currently sitting in storage, bundled in the same rope it came with. Four years later, and she still hasn’t touched it.

That used to annoy me, of course. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate that surreal, wonderful trip for the sake of experience. If it weren’t for Mom diving headlong into things, I don’t know if I’d ever set foot in Africa, let alone make such a bizarre adventure otherwise. I’m thankful for it; sometimes the greatest adventures are the ones you never expect.

The Inevitability Of Age

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/weekly-writing-challenge-golden-years/

Age. It’s one of the inevitable aspects of our lives. It’s like breathing; it happens to everyone, yet no one notices until you point it out. We try not to think about it too much – our society is very much focused on youth – because of all the implications and associations involved. We live day to day in unspoken denial, with the belief that, unlike those that came before us, we will enjoy boundless energy and health. That we are infallible and invulnerable. That we can mock and dismiss our predecessors for their supposedly outdated perspectives. That mortality – the ultimate equalizer – is of no consequence.

I know better.

Just a quick show of hands: How many you reading this care or have cared for an elderly person? I can’t be the only one. Due to the way the cards fell during the 2008 recession, I ended up staying with and assisting some of my older relatives. It’s been a learning experience just from a medical standpoint. Non-functioning immune systems, cancer, diabetic comas, blood sugar, blood pressure, tumors, growths, astigmatism, partial blindness, weak bones, failing organs, infections, sores, memory loss, muscle spasms, loss of balance, twisted ankles, dental work, infusion clinics, nurses’ clinics, pharmacy pickups, heart problems, depression, sleeping problems, bad backs, bad hips, bad joints, bad everything…Most of the problems are hereditary, so I know growing old will not be pleasant. I’ll be turning 30 this year, and I’ve spent more time in hospitals than any non-medical student should. Do you have any idea what it’s like coming home every night and seeing your family grow just a little weaker?

It eats me up inside.

The same goes for how elders are treated on a daily basis. The slow driver holding up your precious commute? Maybe he’s is too physically weak to drive, but he doesn’t have any friends or money to get him where he needs to go. That old lady at the grocery store that smells funny and is cranky all the time? Yeah, she has a life, just like you. Except that hey, maybe she doesn’t get to see her kids anymore. That her family doesn’t care about her, and they only show up at Christmas in a sense of grudging obligation. Maybe her family is dead, and she has to subsist on what little peanuts her social security provides. That, despite all the government policy claims to the contrary, she has to choose between groceries and medicine. And that maybe she lies awake in her bed at night, wishing her body wasn’t aching and her husband was still alive. Wondering how she’s going to pay the bill next week when she’s out of cash. That maybe she might die in her house and go unnoticed for months, simply because the world forgot about her.

That might be you someday.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fear death; I’ve come close enough times to know how quickly and easily it can end. It will happen, and I’m at peace with it. The prolonged suffering that leads up to it, however, is something else entirely. It’s hard getting old. If you’ve got the love and support of family and friends, you’re much better off. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Rather than disregarding our elders, we should spend even more time with them. There’s a belief that age begets wisdom. It’s not necessarily true; everyone is flawed and capable of mistakes no matter how old they are. Some of the most immature people in my life are twice my age, and I’ve grown wary of those who use years as a mark of superiority. If anything, age gives you experience; the extra time is filled with possibilities and opportunities, and it’s just a matter of learning from them.

And passing them on, for that matter. I’ve written before about one of my grandmothers, and how she was easily the strongest person I’d ever known. Not physically – her body was badly broken and warped before she died – but mentally and spiritually. She taught me the value of determination; she lived her last agonizing year with nothing but sheer willpower. If a nearly 100 year-old woman can raise her frail, shattered body up to cook and tend to her flowers every morning, then I know I can do better. That’s the kind of thing you can learn only from your elders; It doesn’t matter how badly you age, but how well you live. I just wish more of my generation (and parents) would bother to listen and understand.

If you have an elderly person in your life, tell them you love them. They’ll probably appreciate it.

A Dozen Years: The Rise And Fall Of The Boss Man

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about loss. That one’s really relevant to me because I lost my job not too long ago. Without getting into specifics, I worked for a dozen years for major company. It started as a summer internship, then a part-time position during college, then a full-time thing after I got my degree. I had the unfortunate timing of graduating just before the recession hit. As in, weeks. Since the employment market was terrible, I fell back on my old standby position and dug myself in. I loathed the thought of going back to my former job, but it was the safe, logical choice. I developed more on a professional level, using my experience to transition from an aloof part-timer into a leadership role. I was very good at it. It didn’t pay much, but I was earning enough to recover what I’d spent on my education and save for retirement.

And it drove me nuts.

Aesop once wrote that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s very true, and it goes both ways. I learned a ton about leadership, procedures, and on-site training, but I loathed how dehumanized and empty I felt every single workday. The younger staff respected me for my years of service, insight, and refusal to play office politics, but eventually they took my responsibility and competence for granted. Even though I was still in my late 20s, I was nicknamed the Boss Man. I even mentored some of my higher-ups! I didn’t fit in with this newer generation of corporate worker; what they teach in seminars is what I learned the hard way, through hands-on experience and patience. Good work ethics had been watered down into statistics. I had too much pride to just phone it in for the sake of meeting quotas. You can’t quantify the human connection with a pie chart. I voiced contempt for the new corporate atmosphere several times.

Too many times.

When I got the call at home, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I had an inkling I was going to be replaced; why keep a mouthy old-timer when they could just hire and train someone new for a fraction of the pay? The possibility of transferring to another position was dangled in front of me like a carrot on a stick, and I played along for months. But at some point, someone decided I was more trouble than I was worth. So it ended with little fanfare. A simple, impersonal telephone call from HR stating that I’d been terminated and that the necessary paperwork would be sent to me. Twelve years of service, and that was that. I jotted down the notes, thanked the HR representative for informing me, and hung up the phone. I sat there quietly for about a minute. Some of my family was in the room. I said, quite clearly:

“It’s over. They cut me loose. I can’t go back now. But it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m just trying not to panic. I’m trying…not to panic. I’m trying not to panic. I’m trying not-

Then I started crying. Hard.

I’m not the emotional type at all. I’m the clever one, the one people go to for insight and advice. But in that moment? I was in free-fall. I’d read about panic attacks when I studied psychology. Never thought I’d have one. But within seconds I went from sobbing to gasping for air. My arms went numb, and my head was in agony. My heart felt like it had aged a decade, and the room was spinning. But about all else, it hurt. Regardless of how much I hated my job, a dozen years is a long time. It felt like a chunk of my body had been ripped away. I had put so much of myself and my life into it, and now it was gone. It wasn’t just a place to work, it was a place to go, to meet new people. Now all I had were the memories and skills I had developed. After all those years of service, I’d be nothing more than a footnote, someone quickly forgotten and replaced. It felt like a betrayal, even though I’d practically walked right into it.

Eventually, I stopped crying and focused. I’m great at looking things from a critical, logistical perspective, and this was nothing different. Looking at the calendar, I realized that my health insurance would end in a week and a half. Thanks, HR! I scrambled to get appointments for both my dental and vision care. You think fitting a check-up into your schedule is hard? Try getting an appointment during Thanksgiving week. It’s even harder than you’d expect. With a lot of searching and phone calls, I managed to squeeze in both appointments before the month ended. Now my teeth are all sparkly, and a new pair of nerdy-but-hopefully-attractive glasses will be on my face next week.

I might even post pictures.

After that, it’s more basic stuff. There’s filing for unemployment, and taking care of the arrangements for my 401K. I’m getting the paperwork organized. I’m going to be doing a résumé for the first time, and it’s going to look pretty weird. I don’t think employers expect to see someone holding a single job for a dozen years. There’s health insurance to consider too; now that my safety net has been burned away, I’ve got to find some to tide me over. I’ve heard the phrase, “Everyone has to have health coverage in 2014!” so many times, it’s annoying. It’s like a survival mantra or something. Of course, not everyone’s going to get it; try saying that to the next homeless dude you see. Go on, try. He’d probably laugh in your face. As for me, I already know I need it; I just need to figure out out which one. I’m holding off until January, because paying premiums twice is something I’d rather avoid.

After that? It’s…murky. I don’t know what other job I’d be suited for. Just have to take these uncharted waters one day at a time. I’ve come close to failure and managed to overcome it before. I intend to do so again.