Louisa Glenn – “Yemen–Not Just Chandler’s Escape Plan”

Louisa Glenn tells of traveling in Yemen and learning there was more to the country than just the setting of a “Friends” episode. 

So! Midway through my junior year – my third year of studying Arabic – I found that I was awfully good at writing about fancy media topics like uranium enrichment or UN security summits, but I couldn’t really have a basic conversation with anyone. So several of my classmates and I decided to spend the coming summer in Yemen. It wasn’t the “sexiest” place to go by far – most everyone else chose to study in Egypt or Syria, but Yemen was for the intrepid and I was ready for an adventure. Some folks back home laughed and confessed they thought Yemen was made up for that Friends episode where Chandler is running away from something … yeah. I mean, I didn’t know much about Yemen either, but at least I knew it was a real place.

I’m pretty sure my parents only let me go there because my dad’s friend – a former navy seal – specializes in evacuations, and had apparently extracted some oil workers from a sticky situation in northern Yemen a few months earlier. So …. if the country dissolved overnight, i’d uhhhhh be fine. Right? My dad also told me once that he was a spy, and that he had a Leer jet waiting for him at the Smyrna airfield, and he was totally pulling my leg, so who knows.

During our first week in Yemen, our little gaggle of language students got to know our neighborhood block by block – using our spangly new conversation skills to introduce ourselves to shopkeepers, making some pretty positive first impressions by saying things like “Hello sir! Yes, I would like a half kilo of tomorrow if you please.” We really just wanted some plums – we were totally unprepared to barter over the cost of a tomorrow.

Our radius of discovery expanded rapidly. We tackled public transport, and visited old Sana’a where I made my grand debut in the main square by barfing my lunch all over myself. (And to those of you who have experienced the delights of using a squat toilet but have yet to throw up in one — boy, do you have a treat in store) On less gastronomically volatile days, we wandered through alleyways between ancient brown brick houses that looked like majestic gingerbread towers, complete with white icing filigree decoration and stained glass windows. We shopped for novelties like mosque-shaped alarm clocks and lighters that, when you pushed a button, projected a picture of the president. Passengers in public taxis wanted to know who we supported in that summer’s world cup, whether it snowed where we came from, and what we thought of Yemen so far.

We loved it! We gradually traveled beyond the capital. On the weekends we piled into our language institute director’s SUV for excursions. She dropped us not too far outside the city limit checkpoints at the liquor smuggler’s hut, telling us to practice our Arabic and to bring her a bottle of gin. And then we went even further afield – remote villages in the countryside where we hiked along livestock trails skirting bottomless chasms that taught me what vertigo means. Once we got lost in a thundercloud and some of us cried but we sang songs from the Sound of Music and made it back to our hotel safely, danced late into the evening, and watched tracer bullets arc into the night -someone had gotten married and everyone was celebrating. Another weekend we rode on the outside of a car – like, not in the back but hanging off the side which was SUPER COOL – on our way to drink coffee with a gun dealer where we discussed firearms and safety. And we scrambled across a stone bridge built between two mountaintop villages – legend has it – in penance for a murder. Yemen was fascinating, and I couldn’t get enough.

We soon engaged in an important daily ritual in Yemen – chewing qat. You may have heard of it – it’s this plant, and you inspect what’s on offer in the market for the most supple, tender leaves. And then you pluck the leaves off the branch, chew them, and store them in your cheek, swallowing the juices. Turns out that what’s in qat is essentially mild amphetamines, which give rise to mild euphoria. Especially when you feel like, all of a sudden, your Arabic is AMAZING and you just want to talk about EVERYTHING. Most people chew every day starting in the early afternoon, and there are rooms at the tops of houses built specifically for chewing with your pals. That’s where all the meaty conversations happen, and where our eyes were opened to the political undercurrents in the country.

For a while, we had a fairly innocent, touristic view of Yemen. The country was enchantingly stark and rugged, and we made lots of friends. But this was 2006 and the backdrop of the summer was a.) my 22nd birthday on July 4th – my friends sewed me an American flag and mixed up some Tang cocktails and b.) national elections scheduled for that fall. Political party symbols were spray painted on any available surface – a big strong horse! an alarm clock! A rising sun! a soccer ball! an airplane! An eagle!

Yemenis wouldn’t talk about it out in the open, but we began to understand that people were uneasy. I spent afternoons chewing qat with journalists who expressed great concern for the lack of press freedom, and how carefully couched any commentary had to be. And I chewed with fathers who worried for their children’s future. And I chewed with businessmen who bemoaned a recent Time Magazine article that ranked all the countries in the world – Yemen ranked sixth on their list … sixth worst, according to their algorithms. We understood that general safety and security was an issue – tribal skirmishes in the north, a heavily and publically armed population, soldiers everywhere. Army trucks with mounted eight-foot guns rumbled through the streets covered in flowers and the president’s portrait. Tourists were kidnapped and held for ransom – some really enjoyed their captors’ hospitality, but they were the lucky ones. Yemen was confronted by overwhelming, very visible poverty, and was predicted to be the first country to run out of water — helped in large part by thirsty qat plants. In the evenings, overcome by the heat and the dust, my friends and I sat on our rooftop relishing the languid sunsets, puffing on hookahs and talking about all these things like the armchair analysts that we were, not realizing that these tensions would soon become all too apparent to us.

One of my classmates who volunteered for an English language newspaper had been covering a week-long tourism festival. Tourists were pretty few and far between, so naturally I was curious to see who would be there. On that final night of the festival, the old square was the emptiest I had ever seen it – a grandstand with government officials and security forces and a handful of tourists, but no taxis, no one hawking bootleg cassette tapes out of their vans, no children running around, no real everyday people living their real everyday lives. Far out of my view, security barriers held the real people back, kept them away from the spectacle that unfolded before us – a strangely sterilized montage of traditional Yemeni dancers, camels and some terrifying giant clowns.

By the time the finale rolled around and the fireworks started, we had been moved up onto the grandstand. This wasn’t a fireworks display as I knew it – not one glittering puff, and then another. This was a barrage, and it went on and on and on. Loud, like gunfire. Like lots of gunfire. I turned to my classmate Liz only to see that she was not watching the fireworks – rather, she was scanning the surrounding rooftops where people were gathering, keeping an eye out for trouble.

The fireworks finally ended, and we all clustered together to figure out the best place to grab a taxi home. Five or six major thoroughfares led into the square, and they had all been cordoned off for the show, police hitting people to keep them back. From where I stood with my friends, I turned and looked down one of these roads, glowing hazy under yellow streetlamps. And that’s when I realized that haze was smoke in the air from the fireworks and dust kicked up by the wall of people charging toward the square, toward us.

I froze. And watched the crowd surge forward. I guessed that, after restraining them for over an hour, the police had moved aside and just let people go. And Liz, my savvy friend who was watching the rooftops said quickly, okay everyone, line up and grab the shirt of the person in front of you and follow me LET’S GOOOO and we did what she said as the yelling got louder and louder and all of a sudden we were in a first floor hotel lobby looking out over the balcony as floods and floods of people spilled into the square. Shouting. Waving knives and guns. I’d certainly never experienced a culmination of public anxiety and anger like that before – it immediately brought to the forefront everything we’d been discussing over the past two months. Once some of the crowds had begun to disperse we took a back staircase to a taxi that had been called for us and later, after expressing our disbelief at what had just happened, we ate dinner in silence.

I left not long after – my studies had come to an end. My love for Yemen has not waned, and my heart stopped last week as I watched a video of bombs being dropped on my old neighborhood. That’s where I learned what it means to become more than a tourist, to not skate through a country without understanding what it means to really live there – for better or for worse.

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Amanda Haggard – “Pacific Coast Honeymoon”

Tenx9 veteran storyteller Amanda Haggard told of her honeymoon on the Pacific Coastal Highway that did not go as she planned. 

Just a tidbit of advice about traveling: The fancier the name of the hotel or motel while on your travels, the shadier it will probably be when you arrive.

For example, anything with “Royal” or “Queen” in the name probably won’t exactly live up to that verbiage. And don’t you ever trust a place that claims to have the “World’s Best” of anything, especially when when it comes to honeymoon suites.

A second bit of advice: Never trust a guy who tells you that your night out won’t require a place to sleep when you’re done. You will always need a place to sleep.

A third bit for your travels: Never try out a new fast food joint before going on a wooden rollercoaster at a theme park. I feel like you don’t really need a “for example” on that one yet.

So my husband and I got married six years ago, amid a budget crisis in California—and in the rest of the country—and we had planned to camp along Pacific Coast Highway for our honeymoon.

We learned quickly after three parks on our plan were closed because of budget cuts that our camping journey up the coast was slowly turning into few nights in shady hotels along the coast. When you budget for camping, and work in retail, any change in plans is likely to bust the bank.

I can assure you of that.

But we rolled with our misfortune, and decided at least for that night, to head back toward Los Angeles.

My husband called a friend he had traveled on the road with for work, who promised to show us a good time that wouldn’t require us having a room to stay in that night.

So Jeremy, a short, smiley Dominican man, packed us into his small BMW and took off through downtown at speeds that might make Doc Brown jealous.

Dipping and diving down the back streets of Los Angeles at about 70 miles per hour, Jeremy sparked up what he called a “suicide KUSH” joint that he scooped up at a pot dispensary before picking us up.

“Happy marriage!” he said, passing the joint around the car while narrowly avoiding parked cars in then back streets of LA. We were nearly dead, but together.

The next day, tired and still somewhat reeling from the terror of the car ride the night before, my husband and I packed up and headed North again on the PCH.

And after maybe the strangest encounter with a Denny’s waitress who was dead set on the fact that we were regulars at her restaurant, we were determined to at least see the view of the coast from the car and side of the road, even if we couldn’t camp where we had intended.

After a day of roadside stops and dipping our toes in the ocean, we set out in search of a hotel we could afford.

Only we hadn’t planned well, and we were in Malibu. So we pulled into “The Malibu Riviera.” Sounds fancy, right?

There were plenty of other shady and interesting hotels on our trip I could tell you about, but “The Malibu Riviera,” my friends, is the one you’d want to get to know.

This was the first, and mind you last, time I make the decision to stay at a place where there’s a sticky note on the lobby door that reads, “Call (310) 457-9503 for a room.”

Nearly an hour after placing the call, an angry face leathered by the California sunshine and surrounded by bleached blonde hair popped out of a ’76 Ford LTD.

Behind her: a throng of panting Pomeranians. Seven in total, all with names like Sky, Rain, Ocean, and Karma, the dogs swam around our feet as leather face unlocked the office door and sat down behind maybe the biggest check-in desk I’ve ever seen.

The dogs settled at her feet, and $130 later, we were unpacking into what was once a glorious 1950s resort hotel. Everything was gold rimmed and filled in with wood paneling, and we imagined that in years before, this place was seriously the place to be. Only now, it really and seriously was not. If the trip to the hot tub full of seaweed did not convince us of hotel’s “Riviera” status, neither did the 1 a.m. near-fist fight between the hotel owner and a resident at the hotel. But we slept in our sleeping bags on top of the dirty mattress, together.

Just to see how the place had faired since our fated stay, I looked up some Trip Advisor reviews a couple years later, and I couldn’t help but share this little gem left in the reviews:

“Expensive, dirty, and full of ants. The owner looked like a worn-out Janis Joplin. Cocaine, or other such substance, was on the side board. Cobwebs adorned the room like flowers at a wedding. Bugs were everywhere, but mainly in the shower. The lights in room didn’t all work and the other guests bad parking meant we couldn’t get into our car all night. On the plus side, we survived.”

Another review was only four words: “too scared to sleep.”

Sigh, dreamy.

The next morning we packed up and drove down to Anaheim, mostly because a nicer room on a last-minute-rooms deal website lured us away.

Here, we found a fast-food joint with the same name of my husband. Paul’s. After downing a namesake burger and fries in lightning speed, we headed on in to Knott’s Berry Farms.

For those of you who are unfamiliar—this is the cheaper, white-trash Charlie Brown version of Disney. We rounded the corner and got into the first line we saw for a ride.

Nearing the top of the ride’s line, we realized we had gotten in line for the biggest wooden roller coaster in the theme park. Twenty minutes and some rickety shakes up and down the coaster later, our lunch was no longer sitting neatly at the bottom of our stomachs.

With barely any money for our two days left in California, we sat on a bench on the outside of a wild-west shoot-em up show, getting glimpses of the show we were missing. But we were together.

Six years later, we can laugh at what felt pretty dire at the time.

And although to some of you in this room, six years might not sound like much, I have learned at least a few things in my short marriage.

Most notably that our marriage itself is much more like our seemingly ill-fated honeymoon:

Sometimes it’s wooden rollercoaster after a gut-bomb burger followed by a wild-west gun show through wooden slats.

Sometimes it’s driving down the back streets at 70 miles an hour, while the driver smokes a spliff and narrowly avoids certain death.

It’s curling up in a sleeping bag on top of a dirty mattress. And we just might have ants in the shower.

But throughout our travels, wherever and whatever they may be, we’re still together.

Joe Tropeano – “Finding Grandma Martha in Chile”

For Tenx9’s “Travel” theme, first-timer Joe Tropeano ended the night with a beautiful story of remembering his late Grandma Martha while traveling on a farm in Chile. 

“Mari Mari!”

I squinted my eyes, strained my ears, and tried again to understand.  I knew Chilean Spanish was tough, but I had absolutely no idea what my new host mother was telling me.

“Mari Mari!” she said again, her lips curled into a proud smile.

“Si, gracias,” I tried, hoping that was an appropriate response to whatever she was telling me.  After all, I was two months into my semester abroad in Chile, and I had gotten used to struggling to understand.  Chilean Spanish is famous for its out-there slang and rapid-fire pronunciation.  But this was different, I soon realized.  Nora was speaking a different language.

That week, I had bid farewell to the high-rises and hills of Valparaíso to spend a week living on a Mapuche farm in Chile’s Araucanía region.  The Mapuche people were the original inhabitants of most of Chile, but now live mostly in the country’s green southern regions, between the snowcapped Andes and the deep blue Pacific.

When I stepped onto my new Mapuche host family’s property, I had never before felt so out of place.  The bathroom was outside, livestock roamed freely around the yard, and the nearest town was an hour away.  The vast, open fields only reminded me of how many thousands of miles I was from my home in suburban New Jersey.  Walking towards the door to the house, I was tempted to make a run for it and head back to the van.

But Nora was already at the doorstep.  “Mari mari!”  she said, greeting me in what I later learned was her native tongue, Mapudungun.   Beckoning me into the kitchen, Nora invited me to sit as she explained the meaning of the common salutation.  All of a sudden, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d somehow been here before.  That’s impossible, I thought, pinching myself.   Nora’s kitchen had a large hearth with a fire brimming inside, a sight you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in New Jersey.  The chili peppers and squash on the shelf were nothing like the Italian fare I’d grown up on.

Why, then, did things seem so oddly familiar?

And then I remembered my Grandma Martha’s voice: “Chiacchierone!

I could still see her, bent over a boiling pot of spaghetti as she pointed an accusing finger at me.  “It means someone who talks a lot,” she explained with a wink. I had no time to defend myself before she started on her next story—recounting how she had spent her summers learning Italian, singing songs, and swapping tall tales with her Sicilian grandparents.  Though I was only six, I got her point. The chiacchierone genes run pretty deep in my family, a badge I ought to wear with pride.

Of all the things that Grandma Martha taught me, the Italian sticks out the most.  Grandma Martha’s Italian was as seasoned as her eggplant parmesan – it was an asset, a tool and a weapon.  When Grandma’s puppy went crazy begging for treats, running around the house and knocking into her china, Grandma Martha would throw her hands up, open her mouth, and shout “come le pazze! Like the crazies!”  When my grandfather forgot to get the Italian breadcrumbs from the grocery store, Grandma Martha would shout “stonato! You’re stupid!And in my grandma’s house, Rita DiLorenzo from down the block was known solely as la faccia brutta, the ugly face.

Grandma Martha’s Italian had the color and movement of the busy Brooklyn streets she grew up on.  It was as brutally honest, as full of life, and as spectacular as she was.

When I was 13, everything changed.

Though the diagnosis surprised no one, we still whispered when we first heard it: “Alzheimer’s.”  To me, it meant empty glances, uncombed hair, and painful silence from a woman few could have quieted in her prime.  It meant memories unshared, stories untold, and words unspoken.

I decided that I couldn’t leave my chiacchierone heritage behind, that if Grandma Martha couldn’t teach me Italian anymore, someone else could.  I started taking after-school Italian lessons, filling the gaps in my Italian so that I could not only insult others, but soon hold entire conversations in the language.  For me, learning Italian was what cooking eggplant parmesan was for my father, or what collecting old family photos was for my aunt.  We remembered so that Grandma could forget.

When my Grandma Martha died, I felt so profoundly out of place.  I had just started my first semester at Vanderbilt, in a city Grandma Martha had never visited, surrounded by people I had only just met.  I remember angrily thinking, “Have these people ever even heard of a cannoli?”  I tried my best to keep myself calm, but inside I felt empty.  Grandma Martha was my Italian teacher, my personal cheering squad, and my best friend.  Although I continued to learn Italian, I couldn’t help but think that I had lost Grandma Martha forever.

Years later, as I learned Mapudungun words in Nora’s kitchen in Chile, memories came back that I thought had died long ago.  Nora also faced oblivion.  Her sons could barely speak Mapudungun, two of the many Mapuche youths in Chile affected by the quickening pace of assimilation.  They had iPhones and laptops and TVs.  They worked all day in the city while their parents tended to the fields.  I couldn’t help but shudder at the memories being lost, at the traditional Mapuche way of life that was being abandoned.

But there were reasons for hope.  Nora’s sons loved the traditional music of the Andes, and performed songs for us in the family’s ruka around the campfire.  They connected with fellow Mapuche friends and family on Facebook and WhatsApp, and they started learning Mapudungun words with me as the week progressed on the farm.   With each word came a story – of rolling hills and rumbling volcanoes, of a time before the Spanish conquest, of a people negotiating their traditional upbringing with today’s modern world.

Newen was one of the words we learned my last weekend on the farm.  It has many meanings in Mapudungun, but most importantly refers to the inner energy that the Mapuche people believe all beings share.

Mapudungun was still a completely foreign language to me, but I had never encountered a word that so perfectly described the way I was feeling.  I thought about Grandma Martha and the words she taught me.  I thought about her learning Italian from her grandparents, just as I had learned Italian from her.  I thought about my past week on the farm and our Mapudungun lessons, the countless cups of mate and conversations that lasted the whole afternoon long.  Just a week before, I had felt so miserably far from home as I stepped onto my Mapuche host family’s property.  Now I felt that the world was incredibly small.

Flash forward one year and I found myself in another unfamiliar place – Italy.  As I walked through Palermo, taking in the colors of the street markets and the chit-chatter of the locals, I couldn’t help but feel, yet again, that I had been here before.  After all, I was in Sicily – a place Grandma Martha had always traveled to in her heart.

I took a seat on a bench and took a bite of the cannoli I had picked up for lunch.  “Pretty good,” I said to the chiacchierone sitting next to me.  Even though the seat was empty, I knew, just as sure as Nora was of newen, that Grandma Martha was sitting there next to me.

Our conversations continue.

Travel: The Understory

As our journey begins

Headed along the Pacific Coast Highway via LA,

Some advice:

You may be too scared to sleep,

You may be going to fast,

You may be nearly dead,