Archive for February, 2012

Bring on the camel teeth

I spent a whole bunch of hours on airplanes yesterday…seven of them from Abu Dhabi to Paris…ten from Paris to Salt Lake City…about two from Salt Lake City to Portland.

Lesson learned:  If the Air France agent in Abu Dhabi asks, “Would you like to sit in the front row of the economy section?” ask, “Have you ever sat there?”

See, every morning at around 5:30, the call to prayer came wafting from this loud speaker into the bedroom where I was sleeping.  Luckily, the voice was a melodious one.  Unluckily, I’m a light sleeper.  And some mornings I needed to get up that early for my author visits anyway.  Also, jet lag is real.  So I boarded the plane sleep deprived.  And I slept.  When I woke up, though, I still had about four hours to go, cramped and crunched and tired and mentally snarling at Air France for creating such a snug spot and cramming me into it.

When I was a child coming home from Ethiopia, airplanes had tiny bottles of lotion and perfume in the restrooms.  I interviewed my mom for my book Jane Kurtz and You–a book about how my real stories have gotten woven into my fiction–and she told me about filling out a questionnaire at the conclusion of that first Europe-Ethiopia flight.  The airlines wanted her opinion because they wanted to get more families with young children traveling.

“What did you say?” I asked her.

She wrote a comment that they needed to provide a bigger size of diaper.

Wow.  Imagine an airlines providing diapers.

On that trip, we spent some time in Egypt before heading to Ethiopia, and my dad rode a camel.  I thought of him as I rode my first camel in Abu Dhabi at a heritage village.

I was a little nervous about getting up on that camel, but the old friend I was with has survived stomach cancer and she said surviving cancer showed her there’s no other time to live your life.  Live it.  Right now.

Camels make crabby, loud sounds–rather like the sounds I wanted to make from that seat in the Air France airplane.  They have scraggly ferocious-looking teeth (at least this camel did) that appear to be willing and ready to take a BITE out of something.

Again, I felt this way for about four hours and it’s a good thing no one from Air France was really in sight.

The camels in the advertisements in Abu Dhabi all look a great deal sweeter and more cuddly or at least majestic, I must say.  I guess if you want to sell something, you make sure you have a really photogenic camel to do it with.

All the ways to advertise are fascinating to me on these international trips.  I especially like looking at billboards, which have flavorful bits of culture on them.   In Abu Dhabi, I kept wanting to get a better photo of the massive billboards about Our Father. When I visited Heritage Village, I realized he was the person credited with changing Abu Dhabi from a camel-and-goat-stew society into the modern, gleaming place it is today.

The immigration agent in Salt Lake City (a good place to go through immigration, by the way, because it’s a small and efficient airport), asked if it was hard to get a visa for United Arab Emirates.  Actually, Abu Dhabi had–hands down–the easiest airport arrival of anyplace I’ve been, including Salt Lake City.

(By the way, though the French may not want to talk to you at their airport, they at least have now sensibly installed a machine to read your boarding card and tell you where your next gate is.  This is a Good Thing.)

They want visitors in Abu Dhabi.  They have a gorgeous mosque where you are welcome to look around (and you can borrow a black abaya and listen to a young man with braces earnestly explain about Islam) and you do not feel for a moment uncomfortable or shut out.

If anything, my only complaint is that every city is starting to take on some of the look of every other city.

But not quite.

Third culture kids and the questions they get

I was talking with a girl at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi this week about the tangles of traveling, of living on this continent and that. We were talking about how I felt every time I left Ethiopia for a visit in the U.S. “I know.  When I go back to America,” she said, “kids ask me, ‘In Abu Dhabi, do you live in a hut?”

Pretty ironic in this country of curving high shiny buildings and zippy roads and so very many banks.

So many banks.

Whenever there are many of anything, I guess, people havce to find ways to make their particular shiny ONE of that thing stand out.

Apparently, some clever brains have been at work thinking about how to make banks stand out.

I’ve liked walking around and seeing the clever pictures and phrases.

The power of surprise

Eight years ago, I did an author visit at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi…and I just spent five days back in the same school.  I started with two assemblies to introduce students to why and how I write books–showing that many of my books draw power from the small moments of my own childhood (the students at ACS are doing a lot of writing about their own small moments), showing how the hard work of writing is rooted in the passion of reading, showing the joy of getting to see reading ripple to kids in Ethiopia through my volunteer work with Ethiopia Reads.  Asking, “How do you make a difference?”

Over the next four days, I went into almost every classroom in the elementary school and talked about the power of details.  If they are the life blood of good writing, as John Gardner said, where do we find them?  “Does anyone remember the assembly and something about Lanie that came from my own childhood?” I asked.  Almost everyone remembered that I spent lots of my childhood outside, that my dad had a garden in Ethiopia, that my mom was the one with the “inside genes.”

Vivid and interesting details come from memories.

River Friendly River Wild gives me the best ways to show how I use what’s happening around me, too, as I’m gathering details that end up in my books.

Not everyone has been through a natural disaster.

Everyone has had times in life when everything feels intensely real and immediate, when every sight and sound and taste and smell and texture feels charged with emotion.  Some people have the gift of paying attention to the treasure of ordinary moments, too.  Of letting the quiet bits speak.  Of savoring the taste of a spoonful of oatmeal as if it were completely new.

For the rest of us, traveling–the thing that makes almost everything new–awakens the senses in ways that our daily lives can’t.  The students I spoke to last week are world travelers, so they understood when I talked about the surprises around every corner of a new place.

Travel often uncovers the unexpected detail that delights because it surprises.  I shared my favorite pictures of my surprises.  I said, “When you’re stuck in what you’re writing, get up and walk around.”  Touch.  Taste.  Smell.  Hear.  See.  Gather.

As you gather, I said, wrap words around what you’re experiencing.  Don’t forget the power of verbs…of the just right noun or unusual adjective.

Vivid and interesting details come from observation.

Schools are busy places these days.  Sometimes I get the feeling there’s no time for surprise and no time for the teachable moment.  (Pay no attention to that author; we’re busy with our reading unit.)  We seem endlessly fascinated with the new techniques and approaches and curriculum units that are going to make students oh so much smarter and well-rounded and equipped for life.   We share the vocabulary of books and writing and reading without giving learning communities the time it takes to experiment and practice and dabble and dream.  We miss the material that is right in front of our noses.

International schools aren’t immune to the pressures, the “must cover x amount of material” as if learning were a predictable matter of input and measurable result.  Still, they often get lots of things right.  They are places of reading and books.  They are amazing margin-oases where the children of the world gather and sit together and read and think and write and rub elbows with their teachers and sometimes with authors and other innovators.

They are incubators for what is to be.  Powerful people…those children of the world.


Seven years ago, my son and daughter and my brother’s daughter took time from their college years to volunteer in an Ethiopia Reads library in Addis Ababa.  They taught English classes and made stories pop off the page using puppets and dance and songs.  They lived in the neighborhood of the library, hopping over sewage puddles on the way to the compound every day.

These things always sound like grand adventures when they become words on a page, don’t they?

I was proud of them for being so interested, so brave, so willing, so open to the world.

The girls had raised money for their adventure and prepared for months and months.  They intended to stay a year.  Jonathan joined them at the last minute, but–as a young man–he was the one who ended up with a lot more freedom to travel around and practice Amharic.

He became a photographer in Ethiopia.  He’s the one who took one of my favorite mountain pictures while he was hiking, an image I never get tired of looking at, especially when I think of all the people who ask me questions about hot, dry, flat Ethiopia.  (It’s below.)

The girls, meanwhile, struggled with some of the realities of being young women outside of America.  Part of the adventure was that they got homesick.

My daughter got especially homesick.  So when I was invited to do author visits and speak at a reading conference in the Persian Gulf, I jumped at the chance and planned a stop in Ethiopia to see the kids.

I’m going back to Abu Dhabi in February to do an author visit, so I’ve been remembering that time as I pack.

What did I know about the Persian Gulf before that first trip?  My basic image was a guy talking into a microphone with an explosion in the background.  Women covered.  Sand.

It’s embarrassing–since I’ve spent so much time talking about Ethiopia with people who have inadequate or wrong images in their minds–to get out into the wide world and discover how little I know.

There’s no doubt a reason why travel writing is such a powerful genre.

We get out into the world and we open up.

We see and smell and taste and hear the things that our minds gloss over when they become everyday occurrences.

Writers are travelers.  Sometimes we get on an airplane, a train, stick out our thumbs by the side of the road.

Sometimes we travel to worlds within.

We pay attention.

We are surprised.

In the high and beautiful mountains of Ethiopia