I am truly thrilled, and honored, to have a story I wrote published in the latest issue of a magazine called Hidden Compass. The Tides of War is about what happened to my wife’s grandparents AFTER they escaped from Nazi Germany and thought they were out of harm’s way, and about our journey to learn more about it, including travel to Ireland and the Isle of Man. It combines two things that are very much a part of my life: travel, and honoring grief. I hope you like it!
When I write about travel, I like to focus on what really hits me. Writing (and hopefully reading) those stories is far more enjoyable than listicles or travelogues.
During our three days in Monteverde, Costa Rica, what hit me—in the face, 24 hours a day—was howling wind and sometimes, eye-stinging rain. I expected some gentle rain, and we had that too; after all, it’s a cloud forest. But the constant, window-rattling, 20-25 mph wind was so loud in our hotel room that we had to visit the farmacia and buy earplugs so we could sleep. …
“Do Amish men wear underwear?”
In my mind, I closed my eyes and slapped my forehead in disbelief at the question. I’m always amazed at what people will ask when they’re learning about other cultures.
Yvonne and I took a guided tour of the Amish Farm and House in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Our guide, who was not Amish, was knowledgeable about the history of the Amish and Mennonite communities in America and gave solid answers to a wide swath of questions. She stared at the man for only a moment before answering. …
I was proud to win the Bronze award in a contest sponsored by Bay Area Travel Writers: the Lee Foster Travel Photography Award. It was no small feat since there were well over 100 entries. The 5 judges were all professional travel photographers, including 3 with long, successful track records at National Geographic. Here’s the photo, which I shot at Arches National Park in Utah.
I first met Britta in the late 1990s, when she was only eight. Her father had died the year before. Her mother, Veronika, had been friends with my wife Yvonne since they’d met in Munich when Yvonne worked there in the mid-1980s. But it was my first time in Germany, and also the first time for our infant son, whom Britta loved to entertain.
Britta’s face looked unmistakably German: round and pretty with rosy cheeks, curly blond hair, and–despite her loss–joyous, blue eyes. Britta spoke virtually no English but she took pleasure with her older brother, Johannes, in teaching me a few words of German—most notably lecker, which means “yummy.” The two kids laughed deliriously whenever I said it. I’m still not sure if they laughed out of delight in having taught me the word or because of the way I said it. …
This essay also appears in my local weekly newspaper, Lamorinda Weekly.
In the beginning: dark, damp soil. A small, black plastic pot of hope. Nothing seems to be growing but my own impatience.
A few evenings later, the dirt has begun to mound and rise, swelled by a pushing from below. In the morning a white nub has appeared below the broken surface of the soil. By evening the protuberance has thickened, a loop of pale white rope tinged with green. The next morning a head is crowning, something large and thick and green dragged up out of the dirt. By the end of that same day, the head has revealed itself, the stalk straightening and hoisting up the bean from which this miracle was born. …
Last time, I wrote about our amazing dive trip at Raja Ampat, Indonesia. We had one incident that was pretty frightening at the time, but in the end was a great learning experience. I wrote about it for the British magazine Diver, “Britain’s best-selling diving magazine.” My story appears in their May issue! In the lower right corner of the cover you can see a photo of Yvonne and me.
Return with me now to Raja Ampat for a somewhat different take on what can happen when you’re diving in unfamiliar conditions. Click on the cover image, or right here, to read the story.
All around me was an utterly alien landscape. I tried to slow my breath, to be still, to float as quietly as I could. A forest of soft, beige coral swayed gently in the bluish-green light. A perfectly camouflaged pygmy seahorse, only 1/2-inch long, clung to an enormous fan coral with its tail. …
Twelve well-behaved children sat politely on the floor, their beautiful, smiling faces looking up at Mike and me as we stood in front of the small classroom. It was about 7:00pm on a Thursday evening, and they were there to learn English. We asked if they had anything they wanted to know about us. “What’s your favorite color? And your favorite animal? Your favorite fruit?” These were not the questions we had expected. But what should we have expected a group of five to twelve-year old kids to ask? “What do you think about the current state of affairs in the U.S.?” Not!
We had been touring in and around Siem Reap that day, visiting a silk farm, Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples, with our Cambodian guide, Borin. Being a tour guide in Siem Reap is a fairly good way to make money, and if you know English and especially Chinese, you’re more likely to get hired. Borin was learning Chinese and his English was pretty good. I was actually surprised at the extent of his vocabulary, but tour guides pick up a lot of words from their clients.
We came to learn that, in addition to working as a guide, Borin volunteers his time a couple of evenings a week teaching English to a group of children in his neighborhood. When we heard this, Mike and I offered to visit his classroom and speak English with them. Borin’s three children were in the class; the smallest, age 5 and the oldest, age 12, eagerly raised their hands whenever we posed a question to the whole group. Borin explained that learning English is imperative for children in Cambodia. “English is a passport to a better job, the key to prosperity and having a better lifestyle. It is hope to a better future,” he said.
Standing in front of the classroom, I came alive! My natural desire to write on a white board and teach were ignited. I had the children guess English words by playing Hangman with them, which they loved—and they were good at it! Mike and I sang English songs with them, racking our brains to remember the words to The Wheels on the Bus, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Old MacDonald Had A Farm, songs we hadn’t sung since our now 22-year old son was small.
The coup de grace, however, was when we taught them how to sing and dance the Hokey Pokey!
In Cambodia there is a shortage of English teachers and a lack of resources, such as tables, chairs, books, and school supplies. When asked what we could donate, Borin requested tables for the children to study. We gave him $24.00, which was enough to buy four tables. When we received a picture of the children sitting at the tables, we felt glad that we had made a small difference.
Borin’s daughter, Nary, hopes to become a doctor when she grows up. With the efforts of her parents and so many other people who are committed to helping the next generation in Cambodia, she hopefully will get her wish.
Note: There are many opportunities to do volunteer work in Cambodia. Some organizations charge a fee, but many don’t. Even just asking your guide, as we did, might unveil some.