Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Out of Africa

I’m lying on my back on a gurney in the back of a Cessna when I hear my husband say “The gas gauge reads empty,”  “No, no,” the pilot replies, “See how the needle is jumping? That means we have about 20 minutes of fuel left.” “How far is it to Nairobi?” my husband says. “We’ll  be there in 17 minutes.” 

At Everest Base Camp
Twenty eight years ago my husband and I visited Kenya. We’d saved our money, sold the car, and gone on the road. One way tickets for $769 from Korean Airlines gave us stopovers in Japan, Korea and Taiwan before we landed in Hong Kong. From there, overland through China, Tibet and Nepal where we trekked in the Himalayas, moving on to Burma and Thailand with the goal of Christmas on the beach. In Rangoon we decided against paying $26 for the one remaining hotel room in the city, instead opting to sleep in a courtyard of a hostel with a bunch of other backpackers. A big open room-a room devoid of mosquito nets. 

Beach, Similan Islands
A couple of weeks later, after sailing to the Similan Islands off the coast of Thailand, my husband developed feelings of seasickness that wouldn't go away. On Christmas Day he was admitted to a little private hospital in Phuket after spiking a fever of 42 degrees. The only person in the hospital who spoke English was the lab tech. “Your husband has 7 malarial parasites per 1000 red blood cells.”  “Is that bad?” I asked. He laughed. “Ten is fatal.”

A few weeks later we flew back to Canada where we lived in my in-laws'
Phuket Hospital
  basement. My husband regained some of the twenty-five or so pound he lost. Every now and then we went out to watch a movie. One night we saw Out of Africa. We were restless and flew to England where we toured around and spent a lot of money being bored and cold. I kept thinking of Out of Africa. At my insistence we booked a really cheap flight with Air Sudan to Nairobi. It’s the only plane I’ve ever seen with graffiti on the inside. The seats were so old they had no padding left. For a bit we were stuck on the runway in a sand storm in Cairo, then left on the tarmac in Khartoum surrounded by soldiers with guns trained on us. It was not Asia.

Near Nairobi
Nairobi was unnerving. The newspapers were filled with stories of people being killed for a watch and the like. On the third day of our visiti, we tried to book a safari on the cheap, like we did in Asia. The travel agent told us to fork out some money and go on a proper safari but we didn't listen. Finally he told us if we were really determined to do it on our own, we could take a local taxi to Arusha and from there to the Great Rift Valley and the Serengeti.

Early the next morning we load into a giant station wagon headed for the Tanzanian border along with some very large African people. The taxi driver and his buddy are laughing it up as we careen around a corner on the savanna where a tribesman is herding cows across the road. The driver touches the brakes, nothing happens, and so he swerves off the road to avoid the herd, clipping a cow along the way.

Once we get past the cows, the driver gives a big whoop and immediately swerves back onto the highway. As his wheels grip pavement, he loses control of the car and it rolls over and over.  I have an out of body experience and watch the car roll, knowing I am in it, but strangely not afraid. The car lands on its wheels and we think it’s going to explode so we start to run. Something is wrong, I look down and see my foot dangling. I collapse in the dry grass and I can’t get my breath. My husband runs over to me and asks what hurts. My back, I say. Lucky for me, his lifeguard training kicks in at once.

One white jeep after another cruises by, white tourists peering out at us. No one stops. Eventually a guy pulls up in a big jeep- a local guy who is studying microbiology at UBC, working for the summer at a vet clinic. He rounds up a few others and they lift me oh so gently into the back of the vehicle and drive me to an outpost hospital in Kajiado where the doctor sets my foot with the help of a shot of morphine. I see nothing but my husband tells me later the clinic is full of Maasai people. My blood pressure is dropping. They call the Flying Doctors who send a land ambulance, the engine floods and it won’t start so they send a plane. My husband says the runway was surrounded by giraffes.

They are waiting for me at Nairobi General and the orthopedic surgeon does his best to set my foot. “Your wife’s not a gym teacher, is she?” he asks my husband.

I wake up the next morning with one overwhelming thought: What if I had died before having children? That thought haunts me for the next year. 

Nairobi General
I spent ten days in that hospital. All around me were other foreigners, some who had been thrown from vehicles and sustained head injuries, other who had been trampled by hippos and injured in various ways. I discovered I had a punctured lung, four broken ribs, and a cracked knee cap. An infection had set in at the site of the compound fracture. Four transverse processes on my vertebrae were fractured and so was the L-7 vertebra which miraculously broke right in half. The doctor told my husband that if the vertebra had only partially broken, the spinal cord would have been compressed, leading to paralysis. The doctor wanted to operate and be paid in cash. The High Commissioner recommended we go home.

Mutual of Omaha, our insurance company, sent a doctor and a nurse from Washington to help us get out of Africa. At the airport my gurney was lifted onto the Air France plane via the food elevator. 18 seats were removed from the plane to accommodate me. Along with my little entourage, we flew to Paris and London and finally Canada. 

I spent six weeks in the Glenrose Hospital. My excellent orthopedic surgeon Don Coulter decided against surgery and I was outfitted with a back-brace which I wore for the next year. I've never had one bit of trouble from my broken back.

Nine months after the back brace came off, I gave birth to the first of my amazing three children.

Friday, 13 February 2015

All the tea in China

I met my husband at the Vancouver Airport on Canada Day, 1984. He claims the first thing I said to him was "I have a boyfriend."  

That's not exactly how I remember it.

We were taking a course called "Education and Society in China" at East China Normal University in Shanghai,
Downtown Shanghai, 1984
sponsored by the University of Victoria.  Len and I and a guy named Aaron Parker plus a dozen mostly divorced middle aged elementary school teachers were the first students enrolled in this programme. 

China was just recently opening up to tourists.  It was cheap. It was an adventure. It was mind-blowing. It was everything that travel should be.

We arrived in Shanghai in the late afternoon and walked off the plane to blasting humidity that never let up. No one was there to meet us. One lady in our group spoke Mandarin and organized taxis to our dorms. The only vehicles on the streets were buses and trucks and bikes. Thousands of bikes. Even though it was pitch black, no one used headlights. Every now and again a taxi would flash his lights and a bike carrying two or three people would be illuminated before our eyes. There were people everywhere. 
Streets of Shanghai, my roomie
Myrna on right

We arrived at our very basic "international student" dorms and went to bed. Jet-lag and heat had me awake at 5 a.m. I watched a young man in a singlet and shorts doing tai chi under a tree under my window. At 6 a.m. the loudspeakers started and students began their morning exercises. 

Every morning we took courses from elderly Chinese professors, translated by Mr. Ye or the handsome charismatic Charles. 
Group dinner
Afternoons, we went on excursions or wandered the neighbourhood park or took a bus that cost 6 cents downtown to Nanjing Road and the Bund. We swam at the Shanghai International pool or the art deco Jinjiang Club. We danced to Glen Miller at the Peace Hotel. We drank at the International Seaman's Club, a foreigners only bar where imported single malt scotch cost a buck, walking home late at night over sleeping bodies stretched out on the sidewalk. While the Chinese had to wait up to two years to buy a bike, Len with his foreign exchange was allowed to purchase his own bike with which he roamed the city. 
Len, me and Mr. Ye

Everywhere, young people wanted to practice their English. Anytime we stopped to look in a shop window an enormous crowd gathered to stare at us. Women wore summer frocks out of the 1950s with knee high pantyhose or sported misspelled English words on trendy t-shirts ("Naughnty" was my favourite).Every noon hour was a lunchtime nap taken by everyone. Even the simplest of tasks was met with bureaucracy.

Jade Screen Pavilion
In early August several members of our group took a trip to Huangshan, one of China's seven sacred mountains-a place all Chinese are supposed to see before they die. After a ten hour bus ride through rice paddies and picturesque villages, we arrived at the base of the mountain.  Len and Aaron and I opted to stay in the cold cement dorm and climb the mountain the next day while the older ladies took the bus up to the lodge. 

After a breakfast of rice gruel and tea, we started our climb. We had been told we had to be at the top before the thunderstorms struck at noon. We climbed thousands of steps carved into the stone mountain.  Aaron met a girl and stopped at the first lodge. 
Len in the mists of Huangshan

We kept going- past noon, through the thunderstorms that boomed and echoed around us. We climbed beyond the spectacular views, up and up into the clouds, seeing nothing. We took a side path to Celestial Capital Peak with its amazing view, but saw only swirling fog. People posed for pictures anyway. The crowds dwindled to nothing. Eventually it was just the two of us, climbing through the mist. We finally reached a ridge and walked on and on, hoping the guest house would appear.

Five months later, we were married.

Thirty years later, here we are.