As we age, I think most people have things they’ve done that make them shudder when they remember. I have a list of them that I recall to mind when I need to take my ego down a notch. Thinking about them is my rendition of flogging. I pull these memories out of my personal failures to punish myself, and to remind myself how much I need grace from God and others. I won’t share all of them, as some are just too painful, but I would like to mention three as personal confession.
I gave my best friend’s groom, whom I had JUST MET, the “where will you go when you die” third degree after the rehearsal dinner. I was so convinced she was about to marry a man who was not a Christian, I contemplated not being in her wedding party as protest. Ugh. I was so full of myself. I created so much drama. Shame on me.
When I was a newlywed, we committed to support two missionary friends for $50 a month. When our start-up business failed, and we were below the poverty line, we failed to keep this commitment. At that time, I was not in charge of our finances, and I was committed to being a submissive, go-along-with-my-husband’s-leadership type of wife. But, I wish I would have nagged a little harder on this one. I always regret letting this commitment slide, and have felt deeply embarrassed by this deficit.
I absolutely hate that I missed being a bridesmaid in my friend Deanna Pan’s wedding. I was traveling a lot at this time in my life, and I knew I had promised I’d be there for her wedding, but I was not diligent to make it happen. I got my dates mixed up, and was in the middle of the Amazon jungle when I should have been wearing a gorgeous red Chinese bridesmaid dress in her honor.
If any of my friends are reading this now, I confess I made a mess of those things. I’m sorry you had to suffer for it.
In 1995, when I was twenty, I spent a few months in Papua New Guinea (PNG) delaying my college graduation from film school by six months. Can I say that huge life experiences happened because of this excursion? Nah. But I do have some fun stories, and hopefully I created a useful video for the missionaries I visited to recruit and publicize the work they were doing. Many thanks to my friend Bill Murray, who put days/weeks? into editing all my footage into a cohesive video while I was mending a broken heart.
Rating my memories from 1-10:
10: Learning to cook fried rice with scrambled egg. This is really quite huge. #1) I was introduced to soy sauce. #2) Chinese restaurants were no longer needed. Marcia Ernst, a veteran missionary of PNG, taught me how to cook fried rice on the other side of the planet. There are hundreds of books written about men who live in alien cultures crossing the divide to reach others with good news (who can do all sorts of miraculous things with duct tape and gasoline) , but I experienced lessons from one of those WOMEN in cooking (with a spatula and frying pan, no less!). You just need oil, cooked rice, soy sauce, vegetables and eggs. Easy peasy. Until an earthquake strikes…
9: Life lessons in an earthquake. Now, we probably weren’t cooking in the middle of this earthquake, but that’s how I remember things. Books fell off shelves. Furniture jolted. Rice was ruined. Reality shifted. The Earth was NOT. TO. BE. TRUSTED. A new acceptance of life was acknowledged as gravity evaporated and I was suddenly terribly alone. Even though surrounded by those who cared. I Could Die. Nothing Is Certain. What Do I Really Hope Will Happen To Me? A split second, and its over. THUNK!. I’m solid again. No longer weightless and floating. Back to rice, eggs and rooted existence. I was told “THAT” was no big deal. Normal. People live with different normals, don’t they?
8: Tom Clancy predicts the future. I was sick. Fever, chills and sore throat. Later, I’d learn I was plagued with chronic tonsillitis. But now it was just the flu. I was loaned Debt of Honor to while away the hours of sickness. I remember not only reading the scene of the airplane-devastated Capitol building, but I remembered its horrifying likeness on the ACTUAL 9/11. I laid in bed for a week? And read, and listened to drums…
7. Drums can really sound satanic. Especially when they mean it. I heard the beat calling to demons while I read the future. Literally, I heard the drums of distant tribes beating into the night. I was feverish and filled with fancy, and was told the tribal drums I heard that night were pagan and didn’t they sound satanic? They sounded hopeless and redundant. That is the same thing, I suppose.
6. I can squat like a native. As I looked into this, I learned its a “thing.” It even has a name: The Third World Squat. Its healthy. Cool. I can do it for long stretches of time, even in a skirt. It was in PNG that I learned that squatting is much more comfortable than standing for long stretches of waiting. I just wish I could do it more often in the States without the stares.
5. British ice cream is superior. So are french fries and Knorr chicken soup. Every so often my dad would drive me to the local missionary boarding school for something-or-other he had to do that was airplane related, and there I discovered Magnum bars. Magnum bars rocked my world in a land that I just could not enjoy eating the local cuisine. First of all, every breath smelled of smoke. Cooking fire smoke, as the locals had to cook this way. Hence, every bite tasted like smoke. I wish I could say I loved the food and could eat anything set before me. I can eat anything, once. But spending three months there, I just couldn’t do it anymore. As a result, my mother proved her love for me by making many bowls full of chicken soup and frying potatoes. for. every. meal. My dad treated me to many a drive to that little in-school grocer to visit the freezer full of Magnums. I learned a valuable lesson that trip for future travels… always look for Magnum bars when visiting foreign lands.
4. Cornrows are painful in more than 3 ways. I couldn’t pass up cheap braids and notoriety. What white girl has a head full of braids? Me! Look close and you’ll see my crazy self. Three hours and the story of a lifetime for two Papua New Guinea ladies who braided and laughed and laughed at the novelty I was paying them to perpetrate: white girl cornrows… and blonde, no less! Stupid idea of mine. Those braid KILLED me all 14 hours home. I couldn’t sleep. My brain was being twisted. I couldn’t scratch. There was no space in my head full of gnarled torment. I survived a head full of braid for two days. The time it took to travel half the globe. Then, a movie later (Forest Gump for those interested)… upbraiding and releasing my sanity… I experienced another phenomena unknown to white hair… Afro. I had re-programmed my hair to kink. If only I understood how awesome that was! The lessons I learned in Papua New Guinea…kinky hair is beautiful.
3. Fantasy Land is real: a world of waterfalls and hidden valleys. Much of my childhood was spent looking out an airplane window at the land below. If it wasn’t international travel, it was traveling the US in a Cessna. I’ve seen many landscapes – US farmland to the “broccoli” land of the Amazon jungle- but Papua New Guinea’s landscape was never repetitious. It was fantastical, unexpected and -as Anne would say – it gave “full scope to the imagination.” Behind every mountain was a waterfall, with birds catching the wind off the water, and every nook and cranny of the valleys filled with curious unknowns. I looked down from above in constant wonder.
2. Beware of panicked bugs. Have an excruciating pain in your ear accompanied by scratching noises?It might be a BUG! Cockroaches fleeing insecticide that was dropped from airplanes over swaths of PNG countryside, run to any nook or cranny to escape the overhead death. I understand the country was periodically sprayed to control disease-spreading mosquitoes. Tunneling into an ear, the cockroach in this particular story only lived long enough to be squished by a pair of tweezers. The poor man whose ear housed the insect sought medical aid from the missionary medics, being unaware of what was causing him such pain. It was a sweet relief for him to have it pulled out and destroyed. (I’m afraid my memory is faulty and I might confuse PNG stories with Togolese stories. I remember that it was Lori Smith who told me this story as she works in the medical field, but it might have been a different nurse in Togo, West Africa. So apologies if I remembered this in the wrong location!)
1. Never wear your fanny pack backward. I learned how naive I was at age 20 in this story. Videotaping at the Goroka airport, my lens caught a distraught Australian woman – who happened to have cornrows, which is how I got the idea – turn and shout while she was standing at the ticket counter. Then she took off running, chasing a local out of the airport, down the street, around the bend and down a hill. We learned from folks around us anxious to tell the tale, that someone had grabbed the clasp of her fanny pack, which she had positioned so the clasp was in the back, zipper in front; and in one motion unlocked it and vamoosed it out of there. I followed, camera rolling. I remember Rich, the twenty-something son of the Ernst’s who was sent to escort me around Goroka videotaping, saying something to me to the effect of, “wait…not a good idea.” But, I was intent on getting a crowd of PNG people filled with emotion. And the sight of this lady’s white head above the now-hundred black heads that came to her shoulder was visually compelling. It just looked so good through the lens, I wanted more. Danger was not even on my radar.
I didn’t listen to Rich and started to follow. He only let me go so far before he suggested we go to the edge of the hill because that would give me a great view of the action unfolding in the neighborhood below. Wasn’t that a tactful way to keep me away from the streets of a nasty section of town? I didn’t notice until we were leaving that he held a large rock ready in his hand. He grimaced as he dropped it, slapping his hands clean. Unlike me, this missionary son understood the dangers of PNG. What I enjoyed as a great event unfolding for my camera, he appreciated as a “blonde” opportunity for any unscrupulous PNGer with crooked ideas. So this memory could be titled: Never wear your fanny pack backward and always carry a big rock. Thanks for the protection Rich.
If any of the wonderful missionaries I stayed with are reading this memoir of their home, thank you for welcoming me and giving me the opportunity to craft a story of your work on video. I especially am thankful for the picture book of PNG and the thank you letter you sent as it helps my faulty memory retain integrity. Those who jump out in my memory: Ernst, Tobias, Smiths, Aholts, Teachouts, and Edwards
But, I visited a farm in Africa. In the seventh grade, my dad and mom spelled a missionary couple in Kenya, Africa who were overdue for furlough, and I got to spend a few months in fairyland, as I remember it. Let me begin with the tea trees. Green. Fragrant. Sunny. Hilly. A perfect playground for a not-yet-young-adult to romp and play Maid Marian and Robin. My flawed remembrance tells me a young Christian owned this plantation and all the American missionary families were invited to a day in the country. I remember fancy tents. And elegant royalty-types in jewel-tone outfits. And talk of a local dish with blood and stomach parts that my father was lucky enough to claim “allergies” and avoid without insult. I was a kid. I ran without shoes and had blonde hair.
(If that ending confused you, you have never visited a developing country with blonde hair.)
I taught Kindergarten while in Africa. To one student. Joy. That was her name. It was like playing school with dolls, but immensely more satisfying. My mother taught me how to plan a lesson. I was bossy.
Our apartment had a claw foot tub that I spent hours in. And a round washing machine from the 1930’s that had a mechanical wringer attached. I don’t remember anything else. The laundry was simply done.
Our apartment complex smelled like Indian food. That was what my mom said.
I rounded up all the missionary kids and directed a play, with costumes, and held tea parties. But I don’t actually remember drinking it. I think the pot was filled with Coke. I remember baking for the parties. And I demanded ice cream, but I don’t think the country had ice cream. My mom made a freezer ice cream with chocolate cake and chocolate sauce. Like Shoney’s Hot Fudge Ice Cream Cake. The cake was a victory because of the altitude.
I made crayons. I melted old crayons and filled little pans with the wax and made an army of crayons. These all went into a trunk-like suitcase my dad said I could fill and take back home with me.
I was the world’s best haggler. Dickerer. Bargainer. Huckster? Open air markets filled with colors and odors and black skin. And everything cheap! Laughter at my audacious price propositions. It was all a game. My favorite items were plastic and metal. Dishes. Enameled dishes painted in bright flowers. And a rainbow of plastic plates. A whole set over time. Into my trunk suitcase for home. And carvings from wood and sand stone. Gorgeous wood. My dad had an eye for the true artist. I just loved the haggle game – undercut, laugh, offer a bit more, laugh, walk away, return at the call, think about it, agree, deal. Laugh. Pay. Price tags are depressing.
Banana and tomato sandwiches. That is truth. But I asked, “please no bananas.” What kind of weird missionary mother passes off banana and tomato sandwiches for a snack?! Not mine. I stayed with the other missionary family at times. The family of my little student, Joy. We built a fortress in their compound in the three-foot-space between the buildings and the outer fence. We had shelves and barricades, and my dishes, and bits of rubbish, and wars. Our compound verses there’s. I don’t remember who they were.
I took walks with my dad through the town. I saw houses of tin… the patchwork of metal from coffee containers and oil cans. Red mud. Green trees. Bare feet. Bald heads. Huge grins. “Would you like some tea? Or biscuits?” We didn’t visit often. It came at too dear a price for the family we visited.
Babies were scrumptious. Rolls of plumpness and dimples and bright eyes and ready smiles. Mothers looked for little helpers, blonde or shaved, no matter. “Give me that baby!”
Warthogs. I loved those little critters. I own a little warthog carving to this day, cut in a little hut in Africa. I recently found a card kept as a keepsake from a single missionary -Karen?- with whom I must have chummed with. It had a batik warthog on the front and a packet of grape powder candy tucked inside. A token of my obsession? I’ve lost that memory. Sorry, Karen?
Visiting Mt. Kenya and Masai Mara Game Park. All the white people with us. I climbed farther than anyone. With dad. We reached 15,000 feet elevation. I was told that was amazing. I was told it was amazing I didn’t get altitude sickness. I was the amazing kid who climbed Mt. Kenya. And I saw herds of wildebeests migrating in the distance. And drank from snow streams. And argued with baboons over picnic scraps. And gazed at miles of jungle from the mattress laid in the back of a white pick-up truck. And learned the true terror of Africa are hippopotomusses (I wanted you to see my spelling effort with that one.) and bull elephants. When I see a sparse, grassy hill with small trees and rocks scattered here and there, it reminds me of Kenya. From the back of that white pickup.
The tea plantation owner must have took a liking to my father. We stayed at the Treetops-affiliate hotel (I googled it – Outspan?) on his dime. Luxury. Swans made of meringue. Chocolate fountains. Crisp rooms. Open verandas. Tile floors. Green lawns. The daughter of this wealthy family (perhaps her name was Agnes?) bought me a cat’s eye bracelet in the gift shop. My mother was not happy. I remember all the stones fell out over time. Kinda like my childish memory. Which I also blame this wealthy family for losing. That truck suitcase packed with my memories and purchases in Kenya? It got bumped for a large, brass clock decorated with a lion killing gazelles gifted to my father at the last minute before boarding our flight to the US. My father did not ever pay for over-baggage. So, my trunk got left in exchange for that stupid, gigantic clock. (It was two feet by four feet – huge!) I resent that clock, and all my lost memories.
Why were we there? My father held Bible institutes for the national Christians and helped in the local church. I have many memories of our dining table full of people with open Bibles, tablets (the paper kind) and loud conversation. Meals shared. Happy talk and Kenyan humor. My mother and I taught missionary kids. All I remember of the church was concrete walls, no windows and vibrant singing.
Who knows if my memories are right. But if not, the wrong ones are lovely.