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The View from my Window – a London essay February 28, 2012

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There are no raindrops on my window, but there should be. It’s raining outside, and cold and windy, because this is London, and it’s February, and gentlemen need a good reason to wear a cap and a tweed waistcoat. Even without raindrops, though, my view is distorted by the ripples in that grand leaded glass that seems just right for a building like this, a building that’s 250 years old.

This is my office, for two weeks at least. There is a marble fireplace, and16 footceilings, and that stately window. Outside there’s a courtyard with an old clock that always reads one minute past two and dormant ivy scaling stone walls. And more stately windows, returning the gaze of my own, of capricious sizes that suggest floors between floors.

This was all built for some chap called the 2nd Earl of Bessborough because he needed somewhere to put his sculpture collection. Someday I shall commission a Palladian villa be built to accommodate by CD collection. Now, since it’s been taken over by Roehampton University, this old villa houses students and lecterns and books.

There are books in this office on shelves that no one could possibly reach without an extension ladder. There are books on anatomy and physiology, nutrition, training… and one at the end of a middle shelf called “Football: The Beautiful Game”.

I’m tucked into a corner desk among two other professors during my visit, working at a computer that feels so dissonant. Seems I should be sipping tea and reading Shakespeare or listening to Handel. Part of travel is testing the stereotypes, which is why travel is good for you. I love the fanciful notion of old Britain, and I always hope those stereotypes prove true. For this trip, so far, so good.

I flew directly over Ireland on the way here, but the Emerald Isle was safely sheltered under a thick canopy of clouds. Finally descending through the clouds, I saw old houses in rows with little gardens, soccer and rugby fields, and grasslands where royalty surely once hunted deer. I saw the River Thames, partitioned from above by bridges far more opulent than their utility ever demanded. It was all so very British. I was delighted.

On the way to customs, aboard the moving walkway, we proceeded past a wall-sized poster of a beefeater and I saw a little girl turn, salute, and declare “Hello Solider!” in the most charming British accent I’ve ever heard. On the ride from Heathrow to the campus I saw foreboding stone walls that once separated a convent from the rest of the world.

And then I saw my office, with its crooked floors and ancient character.

I used to imagine I would find a part of myself in England, a chunk of my true character inhibited by my New World environs. When I studied for a month at Oxford I threatened to buy myself a vestigial walking cane and embrace that inner Englishman. There I’d be, a pretentious young American with his walking cane and his pocket watch traipsing the cobbled streets and feeling quite at home.

I’ve come to realize that I’m no more British than I am Chinese, and that’s okay. One can appreciate, and even participate in, a culture without the need to feel any ownership of it. I think it might even be better that way. The need to intimately identify with a people or a place can set you up for disappointment when the connection is lacking, and that disappointment can be a robber of rich experiences. So now I happily fling myself into a culture with little regard to how removed I might be from it by station or history. And it is that new rich experience that affects and shapes me.

Oh, but I do love England! And every now and then I become utterly foolish and disingenuous and ask a question of a merchant in my fake British accent. I am content, though, without a walking cane, to traverse the cobbled streets and gaze out the stately window on a place that is not home, knowing what a great privilege it is just to visit.

London Wanderlust February 23, 2012

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If “wanderlust” means the desire to explore, the motivation to discover new places, the inborn courage – or foolishness – that sees a long, winding, potentially interminable and misdirected path and says “let’s just see where this might take me”… well, then, I’ve got wanderlust. Naturally, then, when a student’s computer crashed and an afternoon Skype was cancelled, I had to scratch the itch of exploration.

There is a massive “Royal Park” adjacent to campus called Richmond Park. Hundreds of deer roam its confines, and they’re even celebrities now since appearing in a viral video starring a mischievous dog named Fenton. My free afternoon happened to be adorned by bright warm sunshine, so I picked up a weird British sandwich and some biscuits and decided to head out wandering.

They bought me an “A to Zed”, which is a handy book of maps, and I found Richmond Park, and noticed it’s adjacent to another massive greenspace called Wimbledon Common. Familiar with that name, I looked a little closer and sure enough, there was the “All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club”, right there on map 135. I really have no concept for how far things are on these maps, so I decided just to head in that direction and see if I could make it. Who knows, maybe there’d be a lovely game of croquet on.

I’ve learned over time that the danger of these journeys is encountering obstacles that aren’t really apparent on the map. I hit the first such barrier at Kingston Road, which is a really more of a highway, and not an easy one to cross! Parkland beckoned on the other side, so I dashed across, only to find the pedestrian subway that I should have taken after I crossed.

On my map the parks are covered in dotted lines representing paths, and I successfully navigated my way down a dotted line to the nearest landmark, the Wimbledon Windmill. I don’t know why there’s a windmill in the park. It wasn’t turning or anything. I could have learned all about it at the adjacent “Wimbledon Windmill Museum”, but the tennis courts beckoned, and daylight was fading fast. I crossed Wimbledon Common, hiking along at a steady clip and enjoying the fresh air, and then traversed a posh neighborhood that actually had detached houses, not the typical flats-in-rows. These had Porsches and such in front of them. I figured these were the sorts of places that the tennis stars rent out for the tournament. I also wondered if these homeowners despise the annual zoo of tournament time. I wanted to interview one, but none were out. Rounding Newstead Way I got my first glimpse of the familiar green and purple of Wimbledon, just down the hill. I had made it! It was actually a stunning view, because just above the roofline of Centre Court I could make out downtown London, and the London Eye in particular.

The museum had just closed for the day, so I could do little but lap the grounds and peer through each gate. I saw Courts 2 and 3 first. They are pristine. Good grief, even Court 8 is pristine!

Then I reached some excellent views of Centre Court, which is just massive. In a large room that was part of the complex I watch an unexpected event: hordes of boys and girls, all with numbers pinned to their shirts, trying out to be ball kids. They looked well-prepared as they executed a carefully choreographed dance of standing, running, and kneeling around a pretend tennis court.

I never could find Henman Hill, but I saw lots more beautiful grass courts, and even a handful of clay and hard courts. The sun was setting as I left the complex, and apparently there was no croquet happening, so I began the journey back.

As much as I am a fan of wandering I do not like backtracking, so I found new streets and new Porsches and a new entry into the park. And so it was that I was now in a heavily wooded area, with hardly any light, and an almost useless map, delightfully lost. I pointed myself in the general direction I thought I needed to go and chose paths accordingly, until I saw lights in the distance. Wouldn’t you know it, I was back at the windmill! Wrong dotted line, apparently. No worries, I thought, I’ll head west for a while, then north, and encounter all sorts of new things. And so, westward ho!

A sliver of moon was now visible, as was a bright star above the last hint of setting sun. I decided to make like a Magi (Magus?) and follow the star as best I could, since it marked the west. I soon found myself beside a small pond, and I stopped to watch the ducks and listen to all sorts of strange bird calls. It all started to take on a certain eeriness as the last light faded. Twisty trees loomed large, and little squirrels made a racket in the leaves much larger than their size would merit. And I was all alone.

I continued hiking, feeling a lot like the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings book I’m reading right now, and wondering if Tolkien ever hiked a similar wood here in England. I reached a fork in my chosen path, and my star was right in the middle. The rightward path “felt” better, as did a left fork when the path split again. And then I noticed a curious row of small trees that seemed to form a gate where my path crossed. I wasn’t sure, but it almost looked like the trees formed a large circle, and I paused for the briefest moment at the threshold.

In the distance, at what might be the center of this circle of trees, I thought I could make out some sort of bench or monument. As I got closer, I could tell that it was indeed a monument, and my gaze followed it up, up, and I gasped. I was standing beneath a massive stone cross.

I hadn’t seen it as I approached, either because I was watching the ground or because it was too dark. There was a sword on the cross, and inscriptions around the base. The side I had approached read:

“Nature provides the best monument. The perfecting of the work must be left to the gentle hand of time, but each returning Spring will bring a fresh tribute to those whom it desired to keep in everlasting remembrance.”

Circling the stone, I better understood, reading this:

“The land around, 42 acres, is dedicated to public use in memory of all those who, having been resident or belonging to the families resident in the adjoining districts, gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918.”

Once I finally made it home and studied the map a bit I learned that I had inadvertently crossed into Putney Vale and chanced upon the War Memorial, erected in 1920, and the Memorial Gardens. In so doing I fortunately missed a very large Cemetery and Crematorium, which might have been too creepy for even me to bear on such a dark and lonely night.

I’ve whispered a prayer of thanks to God for sending me along the way of the cross. I set out to find tennis courts, and instead I encountered a stirring reminder of the living God in cold stone. I am far from home, and alone, but the Ancient of Days is living and moving.

Belize, days four and five May 21, 2011

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Thursday was a marathon in the clinic. I think it was an 11 hour work day. The space is cramped already, but when the makeshift waiting room is overflowing with patients and families, the bustle can be overwhelming. The team continued their stellar work, each one nimbly handling multiple patients at once. Ian pointed out that everything takes longer here than it does back home, and he’s right. It’s not the time with the patients that seem so long, it’s fabrication time. There are lots of extra hours searching for parts and tools; with everyone using everything at the same time in an unfamiliar setting, stuff gets lost. A lot.

There are also delays because much of the work is done on equipment that’s either outdated or improvised. A particular example comes to mind. Orthotic fabrication involves heating sheets of thermoplastic in a special oven before draping them over a mold of the limb. A vacuum pump then pulls the plastic tightly around the mold while it cools and hardens. For one fairly complicated AFO, the orthotics team needed the largest sheet of plastic we had along with three smaller squares. However, the kitchen oven we use only has one rack. Since all the plastic must be heated at the same time, we had to devise a complex plan involving four people to stretch the plastic, cut off the end, rotate it and fold it, and build up the heel, all within a few seconds of removing the sheet from the oven. The plastic is blazing hot, so orthotists use these special heat gloves. Of course, we only had two good pairs, so two of us had to use layers of wool prosthetic socks to protect our hands. The whole process looked a bit like bizarre synchronized swimming, but it worked.

By this point I had gathered all the information I needed for my grant-writing purposes, so I looked for ways to be useful. I learned how to cut the unfinished AFOs off of the plaster positives, so I set about removing three of them, making a terrible mess and a terrible racket with the pneumatic cutoff saw. I think I’ll have shards of molten plastic in my skin and hair for weeks. One AFO remained, but Ian had not drawn the trim lines on it yet. It was part of a pair, so I looked at the other one and drew my best guess. Ian checked and approved the lines, so I fired up the saw again.

Once the AFOs are removed, the edges must be smoothed using these special grinders and routers. I decided to give this a go too, and the more knowledgeable team members were happy to teach me a few tricks along the way. I worked on that last orthosis, the one I had drawn the lines for, and it probably took me ten times longer than it would have taken anyone else on the team. I had to stop a lot, because the team shares much of the limited equipment, and there were more urgent cases to be worked on. But I stuck with it, and in the end I marked the patient’s name – Julisa – on the orthosis with a wax pencil and turned it over to the professionals.

Some time later a family walked in, a mother and three daughters. The younger two had on school uniforms, and the oldest was in fairly typical teenager clothes. I think families have to pay for schooling here, so mid-afternoons feature similarly-aged children in school uniforms walking home for lunch past children who don’t go to school at all. As this family of fortunate schoolgirls entered, I could tell immediately who our patient was. She had a familiar abnormal walking pattern called scissors gait.

We listened for a moment to see what language the family spoke. The official language of Belize is English (actually, I think it’s English With Almost Unintelligible Creole Accent), but many speak only Spanish, or very Spanish-heavy Spanglish. We only heard Spanish from this bunch, so Allison asked our patient her name. “Como te llamas?”

“Julisa,” the girl replied, and then she smiled and giggled.

So, this was my AFO! I proudly fetched the completed pair of orthoses as the students started their history and evaluation.

“Quantos anos tienes?” Allison continued.

“Nueve,” Julisa replied, and then she giggled some more and looked at her companions. I think she was a little nervous but pleased to be the center of opinion.

I mentioned that everything takes longer than expected here, so there is a lot of waiting for the patients. During some of that waiting time, I decided to try out some of my limited Spanish with Julisa and her family.

“Mi hija es nueve anos tambien,” I declared.

I’m note sure if I said it right, but I was trying to point out that my daughter is also nine years old. Julisa’s mother could clearly spot my gringo language skills, so she replied in English.

“Oh, you have baby nine years old!”

“Si,” I said. “Se llama Rebekah.”

Julisa giggled. Maybe she thought Rebekah was a funny name.

She had come straight from school wearing little plastic sandals on her feet. We really needed her proper shoes in order to size the AFOs, so we asked if someone could go get them. The mother sent the other uniformed daughter, and about 30 minutes later she returned with shoes and two extra boys. Cousins, we learned later. Footplates were cut, straps were sized and attached, and finally Julisa received her AFOs. A lot of kids hate them, but she beamed with pride at her new white ankle braces. She walked around, and the progress was excellent, but it became apparent that she really needed twister orthoses, which of course we did not have. So, once again, we improvised. Ian fashioned a little network of straps and fasteners to wrap around her legs and keep the knees from crossing each other. The sewing machine broke (again) during this process, but during all the waiting Julisa continued to smile and laugh. She and her sisters looked our way and giggled a lot. I’m not sure what was so funny about us, but I was glad to see them smile. Finally, well after dark, Ian put on the finished product, and Julisa walked with dramatically improved gait. She should have been treated sometime long before in her nine years, but at least now she’ll be able to walk faster, trip less, and avoid continued development of improper bone growth.

There’s a custom in which patients get their picture taken out front by the clinic sign. I asked to get my picture taken with Julisa while she wore what was the first AFO I helped fabricate.

There’s one other picture that summarizes this whole experience for me. It’s a picture of Pablo, a serious-looking older man who came to the clinic to receive his first prosthetic leg. We stood by watching intently as he took his first steps. He was almost regal in his stature, with a sort of military cadence in his gait that’s quite unusual, particularly with a new prosthesis. Adjustments were made, and Pablo continued. At one point, he was using his walker to unload the artificial limb. We encouraged him to trust the leg, to put more weight on it, and to feel it underneath him, holding him up. He silently complied. He never said a word through this process, but I could tell his thoughts were many. I believe he’s a man of determination, and I think he’ll do very well with his new leg. I snapped a picture as he walked out the door. It was unintentionally backlit, but I like the silhouette of Pablo, walking off into the sunset, tackling a new life with steely dedication.

Later that night, the team worked on the next day’s fabrication, which included the first carbon fiber AFO ever made in the country of Belize. Don laminated until about 9:00, never once complaining about the interminably long hours. We had to finally leave a vacuum pump running while we went to get dinner. This last dinner (for me) was a feast. We went to a local ceviche restaurant. It’s all they serve, and when they run out for the night they just close the doors and turn out the lights. We were so glad to find the lights still on, and so satisfied by plate after plate of the simple but delicious dish. Stories and smiles were shared, with a little reflection on the day, some plans made for the weekend, and some more “how many habaneros can you eat” posturing.

The next morning I said goodbye to my new friends and wished them well. I hopped into Foxy’s cab again. He is Foxy now, since we’re friends. Turns out his real name is Antonio, which is how he introduced himself when we first met. He gave me some homemade hot sauce to take home, and once again regaled me with stories in his thick accent. Here’s a sample of one bit of the conversation.

Foxy: Over there, cashews grow wild. (He likes the cashew stories.)

Me, nodding just enough to encourage him, because I love these stories: Really?

Foxy: All the pirates come and eat the cashews.

Me, baffled: That’s strange.

Foxy, sensing my confusion: You have pirates?

Me, still confused: Yes, we have pirates.

Foxy: Okay. So the pirates all come flying over to get to the cashews. Sometimes you see them right over the road.

Me, catching on: Oh, parrots!

The flight home was simple enough, and the simplicity of life in Belize stuck with me as a bit of reverse culture shock took me by surprise. I’m rarely gone from home this long, which is a profound blessing, so I was delighted to see Amy and the girls. Now, I’ll get to work on writing grant proposals to support this excellent work and the excellent people who give so much to people they don’t even know. I have lots of names and faces to pray for now, lots of stories to tell, and far more memories of this small country with a big heart.

Belize, day three May 21, 2011

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The rest of the team is here longer than me, many working for over a week, so Rob builds in a chance for some needed down time on Wednesday. So, I was privileged to join most of the team on a tour of the New River and the Mayan temples of Lamanai. It was an unforgettable all-day tour replete with moments of personal incredulity, when I’d stop and remind myself of my extraordinary surroundings with thoughts like, “I’m actually in the jungle, with a crocodile swimming under my boat!”

The transformation from city to jungle was almost instant as the river wound its way through the countryside. This was the same river the Mayans used to explore these parts some 3,000 years before, and it only takes a little imagination to consider what it would have been like in their wooden canoes. We had several wildlife encounters along the way to Lamanai. The aforementioned croc was a hoot. He sat motionless on the riverbank with his mouth wide open, like I’ve seen them pose at the zoo. The setting was a little too perfect as we approached, with the neat clearing in the vines, and the crocodile actually looked plastic, so when our guide Ignacio said, “Made in Taiwan” and invited Jessica to pet the croc’s snout, we all chuckled at being duped. That is until Jess, leaning over the water, and shrieked when the crocodile snapped his jaws shut and with shocking speed dashed into the water. He was under our boat, gone from sight, in less than a second. Made in Belize, definitely.

Later, we rounded a bend in the river and came upon a pair of spider monkeys. When we left Ignacio had brought along a bag of bananas. I assumed these were a snack for us, but I was wrong. He eased the boat under the overhanging branches and the monkeys spotted the bananas. Having gained their trust, we tempted one of the monkeys onto the boat, where he walked right across Tyler’s lap to fetch the treat. The other was a bit too timid to climb aboard, so Ignacio handed me a banana to feed her. It was then, just for a moment, that I had a thought that still makes me chuckle. I looked at the monkey, and then at the banana, and wondered, “Should I peel it?” Of course, monkeys have been eating bananas quite nicely without my help for a long time now, so I held out the fruit as the monkey reached out her hand. She grabbed the banana, snapped it in two pieces, somehow got the fruit out and into her mouth too quickly for me to figure out how, and dropped the peel into the river. Amazing.

The Mayan temples of Lamanai are quite sublime. I expected ruins, and the need to mentally fill in the gaps to picture the spots where great structures once were. I soon realized the great structures are quite intact. Massive stone pyramids, the walls of a royal courtyard, stone jaguar faces, and even a ball court pepper the riverside settlement. They’re massive, and it’s hard to imagine why they needed to be discovered and excavated in the first place until you notice something. There’s a strong symmetry in the structures, and you realize that the mound of jungle growth you’re walking on is directly opposite a temple. So, with a little digging, that mound would reveal another temple.

Adrian seems to know everyone in Orange Walk, and he booked the tour for us, so we got our own private boat and a much more personalized experience. Consequently, we were able to add a side visit that not too many groups ever see. As Europeans began exploring the area, the Mayan civilization was obviously affected dramatically. One lasting impact is a sugar mill, built in the 1800’s (A.D.!) by the British. This site has been excavated just like the temples. Rusted metalworks atop a brick structure reveal an elaborate factory, with massive cranks and gears driving two huge rollers that pressed the sugarcane. On the back side of the structure, a strangler fig tree has grown in and around and through the brick and metal, creating an ironic grafting of the natural and the unnatural.

Ignacio provided lots of informative storytelling along the way in a particularly charming Creole accent. To say something like, “a new temple was built atop the older structure,” he would with great expression say, “And then when them got a new rulah, he completely canceled da whole project, and them did building a new temple right on toppa da old one.” One other treat at Lamanai was the fact that it’s not an American park, so you can climb on everything and explore all you want. The climb up the steep and treacherous steps of the High Temple is not for the faint of heart!

On the way back down the river, we passed a huge Mennonite settlement. You’ll see the Mennonites in town, men in their familiar hats and beards sometimes selling furniture. My dad was raised Mennonite in rural Virginia, so I’m accustomed to the culture, but in Virginia, not in Belize! The dissonance has been a bit of a shock for me, and the steel-wheeled horse and buggy rambling through a farm in the middle of the Central American jungle was no less surprising.

Back in Orange Walk I was able to get some work done on grant proposal preparations. It’s still hard for me to get used to these late nights, eating dinner at 9:00 local time, which is 11:00 back home, about 6 hours after we usually eat. But the food is worth the wait, every time, and the company has been wonderful. Camaraderie is a natural byproduct on trips like these, and we’ve all become fast friends.

Belize, day two May 18, 2011

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Monday night I slept the fitful sleep of a stranger in a strange land and a different time zone. A particular bird started his full-throated morning song at about 4:30 am. It was an eight-note sequence repeated over and over, and the bird apparently does not understand time signatures, so it kept me up for good. I’ve read that birds sometimes sing for no known purpose. It seems they sometimes just like to sing. There’s a great truth in that, so as I struggled to get a couple more hours of precious sleep I was not grumpy, I was grateful.

Hours later, I met the team for a walk through Orange Walk Town and breakfast at Mary Anne’s food stand. The town is dynamic and vibrant in the morning, and I was again struck by the novelty of everything I saw. Breakfast was eggs and beans and waffles with queso accompanied by delicious watermelon juice. All the food is so much fresher here than what I’m accustomed to, and it’s easy to taste the difference.

We walked the rest of the way to the clinic, and a busy day started in earnest. I was unable to finish my AFO sorting project before patients started coming. Every room at the clinic is used for three or four different purposes, so my stock room became an exam room. I met Justin, a little boy with big brown eyes that revealed his thoughts about the treatment he was receiving for club feet.

At the same time, Oscar was receiving a new prosthetic leg. The process usually involves lots of feedback from the patient about fit, comfort, and alignment. Oscar’s feedback was not really useful. He just smiled and nodded about every question asked of him. He was easily the most agreeable patient I’ve met, and he had a wonderful smile.

Shortly thereafter, a lady poked her head in the door wondering if Adrian was here. Adrian is the clinic manager. He lives in town and was missing both his legs at birth. He gets around on a modified skateboard and makes me laugh every day. She had found the right place, so she brought in two other adults and Fatima, a charming 4-year-old with spina bifida. She had a squeaky little voice, an impressive vocabulary in both English and Spanish, and a concerned family. They had traveled to Guatemala some time ago to try to get some care for her equinovarus feet, but they believed the orthoses they received were actually making her condition worse. I was able to consult with Ian, the team’s orthotist, regarding her options, and I was glad to be useful. I’ve had years of training in human locomotion, but I never get to use it for actual patient care. Unfortunately, Fatima’s options were limited. Ian modified her orthoses, but she really needs either a method of serial casting called the Ponseti method, or surgery to lengthen her Achilles tendons. Adrian started making phone calls, only to be told that Ponseti is not done anywhere in the country.

All the while, Fatima was happily playing with the coloring book we gave her. She didn’t actually do much coloring, but she sure had a good time. She would hand me a crayon, and we would talk about the color (in English and Spanish) and then she would declare, “I like colors”. She must have said that 15 times. She melted all our hearts, and we were sad to send her away. (She actually only got upset when it was time to go!) Adrian is committed to following up on her care after the team goes home.

Patients kept coming, so we ordered lunch from a nearby Chinese restaurant. (Yes, they have Chinese restaurants in Belize. Lots of them, actually.) We ate quickly and then returned to the task at hand. Patrick lost one whole leg and a couple of toes on the other due to diabetes, a big problem here. Rob took care to make sure the prosthesis he received would accommodate his primary means of transportation, his bicycle. Later, two particularly challenging patients arrived, and I got to watch the team really excel.

These would have been difficult cases in even the best of settings, so I was doubly impressed that they were even taken on here. One was a young girl and the other an older lady, but both were motivated and strong. The girl lost her leg due to cancer, and was the most difficult level of amputation to treat, a hemipelvectomy. The lady was also an amputee with major challenges. Rob turned into a bit of a superhero at this point, simultaneously managing both patients while we all continued to ask him where certain parts were or how to do certain procedures. This lasted late into the evening, and Rob never once let the pressure get to him. He also never made a mistake, which would have been easy to do with this concurrent and complex treatment. I shall remain forever impressed.

I was also impressed with the patients. The girl’s suspension required some improvisation, and we wound up having to fashion a couple of straps and buckles out of spare parts. This required some sewing, and the clinic’s old Pfaff sewing machine sadly stopped working after the first line of stitches. Rob tried to fix it, I tried to fix, and ultimately Adrian decided to pour oil into every hole he could find, all to no avail. Eventually a chain in the drive mechanism broke. While Adrian was madly oiling the Pfaff, Rob and I were trying to resurrect an old donated Sears Kenmore machine. I fixed the bobbin while Rob dealt with the other patient. These sorts of delays tend to spring up in settings like this, and though the patients are remarkably understanding, we all feel bad that they sometimes have to give up a whole day for their treatment.

In the end, after a whole bunch of modifications and adjustments, both ladies took timid, measured steps on their new prosthetic legs. It was a sweet time and a beautiful accomplishment. Darkness had fallen outside, but the room was lit with smiles. Each member of the team, grimy and tired though we were, shared a moment of realization that these were profound, life-changing steps, and we all played some small role in making them happen.

After a late dinner I went straight to bed, more tired than I realized. Unlike the night before, I slept a deep, sound sleep, surprised by the sunlight when I finally opened my eyes.

Belize, day one May 17, 2011

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[I’m in Belize on a medical mission with Project Hope Belize, a facility that provides the only prosthetics and orthotics care in the entire country. I’m here to pitch in as needed (given I’m not exactly a medical professional) and learn more about the operation in hopes of securing grant funding to support their work.]

Monday morning, 9 am, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport Concourse E

It’s been a while since I’ve flown out of the country, and I always get a thrill just walking down the international concourse. I like how the clothing and skin tones change, and I realize how little I know about the world. There was a flight leaving for Liberia. It did not specify a city name. Is there only one international airport in the whole country, or is there also a city named Liberia? See? Much to learn.

I had my typical short wait at my gate before boarding. There was a small family in front of me – mom, dad, and teenaged daughter. Just before presenting her passport, she whispered, seemingly out of character, “I’m so excited! Thanks, dad.” There’s surely a great story there.

The nonstop flight to Belize City is less than three hours from Atlanta, but still crazy expensive, so I don’t blame myself for knowing so little about this particular country. I was catching up on some back issues of Rolling Stone but stayed distracted by the college group behind me. They were from somewhere in Indiana, on their way to a 12-day diving and snorkeling trip. Several were reading a book about ecosystems and the tropics, which makes me think they were getting credit for the trip. Nice. I could have done without the very loud group effort at solving the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine, but their exuberance amused me.

Another thrill: spotting the first offshore island through the window, descending through the cloud cover to see verdant forest, and realizing how far I’d come in so short a time. Wild vegetation we just don’t get in Georgia was occasionally split by swaths of brightly colored houses. I always relish the opportunity to drop out of the sky into a land that looks so different than mine. The accumulation of so many small details that are natural here but unnatural for me creates this feel, and I got it in the first few seconds of that aerial view. It’s wonderful.

No jetway here, so I descended the staircase-on-wheels to set foot in my 17th country. Customs in Belize was easy. The official language is English (who knew?), so I was able to answer the questions reasonably. I was surprised by one question. I had explained what I would be doing in the country, and a customs agent asked, “Did you bring anything?” I thought for a moment that of course I brought stuff. I’m carrying a suitcase, aren’t I? Then I grinned a little and said, “Nope.” And she said, “Okay,” and stamped my form. Good thing I didn’t bring anything on this trip.

This is my second official work trip to a developing country, and so it became my second time looking for a sign with my name on it, and my second time getting into a taxi by myself in a foreign land to hurtle off into the unknown, trusting my life to a complete stranger. Well, I suppose Foxy was not a complete stranger. That’s right, I said “Foxy”. At least that’s who Rob, the organizer of the trip, said would be picking me up. When he introduced himself, he didn’t seem to say his name was Foxy, so I didn’t call him anything. But I think if I ever need a pseudonym, “Foxy” just might work. Foxy led me towards a parking lot with minibuses and cabs and eventually toward a shiny black Mercedes. But that wasn’t his. Foxy’s car was a beat-up old Ford with a big crack in the windshield and what certainly looked like a bullet hole, though I can’t be sure. Still, I was grateful for the ride, which he provides at a huge discount as his personal way of supporting the work at Project Hope.

Foxy has a thick accent, so though his English was fine, I did struggle a bit to understand him. We spoke a bit about each town we passed, and he told of a certain spot where the cashews grow in abundance and can be eaten for free. As we traveled north for about 30-some miles I got a feel for the landscape and the country. The majority of the structures we passed looked abandoned, but I soon realized they’re not. For many it was difficult to tell if there was an addition being built or part of the building falling down. Many had rusting old cars in the yard, surrounded by weeds suggesting they’d been there for years. Some even had complete abandoned school buses, right there in their front yard. And we passed at least two junk yards. I don’t know where all these old vehicles come from. There were also lots of churches, many in what appeared to be disrepair but with clearly painted signs revealing a long list of service times. I wish I could be here for one.

Strangely, the drive reminded me a bit of the route we used to take to the beach from Raleigh, passing through rural North Carolina. Maybe it was the sandy soil and long, straight, two-lane roads. Or the people standing by the roadside, not at a bus stop waiting – just standing, passing the time. So, Belize is a bit like eastern North Carolina. Except for the dozens of roadside mango stands, and the palm trees loaded with coconuts, and the sugar cane fields, and the wild mahogany trees, and the Caribbean rum distillery.

We arrived at Project Hope just as a visiting group of Occupational Therapy students was leaving. I served as photographer for their group picture, then hastily met the team before we all loaded up in an extended cab pickup and went straight to dinner at the house of a patient. Many of the patients are extravagantly generous in their means of showing thanks to the group for the care they receive. There were three bags of mangoes at the facility, all from the gardens of patients. And one particular family had invited the whole group to a home-cooked meal at their home. Now that’s what I call a proper welcome to a new country!

Eleven people live in this home, though I’m not sure where. There was no indoor plumbing and no indoor kitchen. They do their cooking over a sizeable outdoor brick hearth covered by a corrugated metal roof. We ate right there, outside, next to the hearth on plastic chairs. Oh, they had cooked and cooked for us! I feasted on rice that had been cooked in coconut milk and something called black chicken soup. The fresh papaya was fabulous, and the horchata was wildly sweet. The family did not eat; they only served us and stood by attentively, desperate for us to enjoy ourselves.

A plate of roasted habanero pepper was passed. The family grows their own peppers – cayenne, jalapeno, and habanero – so this was as close from the garden to the plate as it gets. Tyler, affectionately known as “Mongo”, is one of the students on the trip (actually, I think he’s a recent graduate) from Georgia Tech. He tried a bit of a pepper, and his reaction was hysterical. I couldn’t resist, so I cut off a chunk and popped it in my mouth. I’ve had my share of spicy food, but this was easily the hottest thing I’ve ever tasted. I was amazed at how the fire stayed in my mouth for a good five minutes after I’d swallowed the little devil, even after I ate mouthfuls of rice and swirled the horchata in my cheeks, hoping it might act like a fire extinguisher. Remarkable.

Back at Project Hope, the group took to the afternoon’s work with vigor. They’re an affable and energetic bunch, and it’s readily apparent that they all have incredibly giving spirits. I worked on unloading boxes of donated pediatric ankle-foot orthoses, sorting them, and finding shelf space for them. It wasn’t much, but I think it’s the sort of work that the practitioners rarely get time to do since they’re occupied with patients and fittings, so it was apparently much appreciated.

Though the afternoon was reserved for work on components for the patients who had been seen that morning, one patient did wander in, and he gave me a glimpse of what I will see in the coming days. He lost his left leg some time ago, and was hopping down a set of stairs on his right leg when he fell, suffering serious trauma that went untreated. He now has lost sensation and muscle activity in the intact limb and needs an orthosis for it. When he came to see us, {this is really gross) he could not wear a normal shoe during his fitting because his foot was bandaged. Turns out he woke one morning to find a rat chewing onh his toes. He could not feel is due to the neuropathy. The team took care of him and sent him on his way. He stood quietly in front of the facility for probably an hour or more, waiting for a ride, I suppose.

That’s the sort of work the folks do here, and I already feel privileged to be a part of it.

Four more days yet to come!

Observations from 7 hours at the Orlando airport March 19, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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1) I miss standby. I wrapped up my business of the day sooner than expected, and decided to come on to the airport since there’s a flight every single hour to Atlanta, and I was willing to pay the $50 Delta extorts from its passengers to get an earlier flight. When I checked in, though, they wouldn’t let me pay them $50 as every single flight before my scheduled 8:30 departure (1:30, 2:30, 3:30, 4:30, 5:30, 6:30, and 7:30) was full. Seriously? I dutifully checked at each gate every hour, and thought several of the flights had a seat or two, they would all look at my boarding pass, realize I’m not medallion platinum zirconium, and say, “Sorry, this flight’s full.” What they really meant, and often implied with their manner, was “Sorry, you’re nobody.” I was finally offered a seat, for $50, for the 7:30 flight. Sadly, one hour does not justify fifty bucks. That’s why I’ve spent 7 hours at the Orlando airport.

2) This city is really really crowded. When I picked up my rental car Thursday morning, I asked how busy they were. The guy at the desk checked the daily report that had just printed and revealed that they had 1,500 reservations. Just for that day. Just for Thrifty. Staggering.

3) Lots of British families here. “Look mummy! Tink-ah-bell!”

4) Lots of Harry Potter fans here now, since Universal added the “Experience.” I’ve heard it’s amazing. An girl of Indian descent just walked by wearing a Hermione costume, head-to-toe, cape and all.

5) There are things I’ve grown accustomed to at ATL that are not at this airport, and I miss them. There’s no place to put your large Smoothie. Only seats, no little tables. There are not enough trash cans. There are not nearly enough food options. They do have their own massive Disney store (“Earport” store), but very little out at the gates.

6) Two consecutive meals at an airport is not a good thing. Especially at one with not enough food options. Remind me not to do this again.

How I Broke My Finger July 6, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Family, Travel.
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I had a small orange sticker in the center of my forehead with a single word: “awesome”. On the way to Cloudland Canyon, we found a Mad Libs-like game that came with a sticker sheet of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. We had passed the 2-hour drive labeling things. Hannah’s ear lobe got a sticker that said, well:

 My ball cap got a sticker that said, “cap”. And naturally, I chose for myself the sticker that said “awesome”.

We arrived in good order, visited a lovely overlook, and tossed a Frisbee while we waited for one more family to arrive. Soon all were present and accounted for: 4 grown-ups, 4 girls, and 3 boys. It’s unusual for our outings to feature so many of my gender, so I looked forward to a lively hike. 

The trailheads at Cloudland are all on the rim, so the way in is downhill and easy. Sturdy steps and wide paths speak to a well-maintained park. When we reached the first fork we noticed our energetic passel of young “leaders” had ventured off on the wrong path. After redirecting the wayward youths we completed the short trek to the first waterfall.

Our kids have this habit of ignoring the warning signs at state (and national) parks and leaving the marked trails for a little adventure. The base of the first waterfall didn’t really have a marked trail, so they scattered right away with nary a glance over the shoulder. The temptation here was to swim in the pool under the falls, despite the numerous large signs stating NO SWIMMING. We might have let them wade in a little, but there was another family there and we wanted to set a good example and look like responsible parents. So, we perched on some boulders and ate lunch while watching the fish swim in the pool instead of us.

The next waterfall landed on a rock base instead of a pool, and there weren’t really any nearby signs cautioning us to stay on the trail, and we were the only group in sight, so, well, you get the idea. There seemed to be two approaches to the falls, and as the boys headed down and around the rocky path, I scouted a much more direct route down a muddy hill. Since we didn’t care to finish the day with wet shoes and socks, we doffed our footwear and the girls and I began our descent, only slightly motivated by the chance to beat the boys to the falls.

Beat the boys we did, and soon I was the first to stand under the falls. The water was pleasantly cool but certainly powerful.

The falls pelted us as we posed for pictures and then crossed to the other side, where the canyon dug deep under a rock face. The boys joined the wet photo op while Rebekah and I watched.

Bek, our 9 year old, was my constant hiking companion, holding my hand tightly on the rugged rocks. The rocks were really quite interesting, hewn in sharp geometric patterns, almost like a haphazardly tiled mosaic. That mosaic would soon be my undoing.

Bek and I decided to explore the open-air cavern a bit, navigating the rocks fairly nimbly in our bare feet. The footing had been sure, enough to make me a bit complacent, apparently, until I stepped on a wet, sloping rock that was so slick it could have been placed there by BP. My foot slid down the face of the rock until my toes jammed into a waiting crevice, and down I went.

A fall  on a rock would not be too memorable were it not for the fact that I was still holding Rebekah’s hand as I fell. I would like to say I was alert enough to release her little fingers on the way down and avoid her completely. Instead, I must hang my head in shame and report that, indeed, I pulled my daughter down with me! I can’t recall the mechanics of the fall, but the aftermath is vivid. Rebekah somehow fell across an adjacent rock, landing on her knee and thigh. We were somehow still holding hands when she started wailing, saw the blood on her knee, and amped up the screams even more as my guilt descended.

I managed to pull Rebekah over onto my lap as my hand and knee throbbed. I glanced at my five bloodied toes and then saw Bek’s bloody knee quivering. Really, the whole leg was just shaking. It took some time and TLC, but the tremors stopped along with the sobs, and we realized we had still had to find our way out of there.

I did not relish the idea of climbing back up a muddy hill, especially with all the open wounds, so we decided to hike back to the trail using the boys’ route. The going was slow and painful, but Bek was a trooper and we managed.

The boys had ascended another small waterfall to get to the big one, and it became a great challenge to figure out how to get Bek down this 5 foot drop. The hike then turned into a rather exciting rescue mission for all the kids. Two tried out possible routes over the ledge. Two stayed with us, one just ahead and one trailing behind, offering encouragement. After much pondering, we figured out a way to get me down the falls, then move Bek to a little landing from which I could carry her down the rest of the way.

The plan worked, and I think we even washed a lot of the blood off along the way. With our rescue mission accomplished, we snapped some “war wound” photos:

 

 

… used up all the Band Aids we’d carried in with us, and finished the hike. Ironically, it was my only non-bleeding injury that hurt the most. I guess I had tried to break the fall with my one available hand, and the first two fingers promptly swelled up like sausages.

Sausage number one looked awfully crooked, so after we got home and grabbed a bite to eat I went to an urgent care place. Turns out the index finger is fractured right at one of the joints. It should heal fine, but I’ll know for sure on Friday. Of course, the splint has been a nuisance, and there’s all kinds of pain shooting through the finger even as I type this, and I have a renewed appreciation of all the things I use my right hand for. More importantly, though, Rebekah is healing up quite well and quite quickly.

Time for the moral of the story, if you’ll indulge me. Despite the stumble, I was really struck by the canyon‘s beauty. It felt like more than a few of the ferns and wildflowers and shafts of sunlight were placed by God in just the right spot for me to enjoy that day. After the fall on the falls, I was doubly grateful that I can call this God my Father, and that He’s infinitely more dependable than me. Here’s what’s funny. Even after standing under a torrential waterfall, after failing to negotiate the rocks, after unwittingly inflicting harm on my dear child, one of the kids noticed that I still had that funny little “awesome” sticker on my forehead! And there, in a place that really did inspire awe in me, created by a Father with the strongest of arms who faithfully holds my hand and guides my way, I chuckled. No, I’m not awesome. Far from it, in fact. But God knows that, and He loves me anyway.

Counting January 7, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Family, People, Travel.
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An emerging purple sunrise lit my rearview mirror as I drove west in silence. We like to leave early for our family road trips, and we usually have a rule that no one is allowed to talk until 7 a.m. When the kids were younger, we hoped that decree would encourage them to go back to sleep. Nowadays road trips are so easy it doesn’t really matter if they sleep or not.

Silence is foreign to me. I’m never in the car without the stereo on, and I usually have some sort of background music on at work. Still, I know the quiet is good for me. It makes me thoughtful and reflective. The calm on that morning drive allowed me to marvel at the sunrise and steal a few glances at the sleepy children behind me. We were on our way home after seven days in North Carolina visiting family during Christmas. The combination of fresh Christmas memories, the road home, the sleepy kids, and the silence led me to a do something that’s as trite as a children’s song but so healthy: I counted my blessings.

On the way home, I counted home as a blessing. We looked forward to going back home, even as we drove toward a house full of Christmas decorations that would need to come down (one of which was my massive pre-lit arch that barely fits through any of our doorways), full of fixtures and appliances that are near that 10-to-15-year breaking point, but full of warmth and familiarity and comfort. We have grown our roots here for more than a decade, so they have gotten pretty deep. We laugh a lot here, and we’ve gotten good at establishing a place where the travails of the world can be met with reassurance and love.

Home is a place of “favorites”. My favorite old sweatshirt is here, along with my favorite music and mattress and recliner. I know where the buttons are on the remote control without looking, and I know just how long to microwave the popcorn without burning it.

I counted the blessing of my kids, dozing in my back seat. Rebekah’s blonde tresses were a tangled mess, and I quietly laughed at how poorly she manages mornings. Maybe it’s that bright hair, or that sweetest of smiles, or that endearing lisp; something about her just makes her a ray of sunshine. Hannah sat beside her, her caring confidant. To see Hannah in any state of repose is a tiny bit alarming, but she did look peaceful and beautiful in her reverie. On this trip, as on so many others, Hannah’s joie de vivre had infected a house full of people. I’m glad she’s not gotten too old to go wild. Sarah Kate was not in my rear-view mirror. She rarely is. She spreads herself over the entire back of the minivan, either sleeping or reading, popping her head up occasionally like a gopher surveying the overworld. Sarah adores family time, so seeing 25 cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents on one trip was heartwarming to her. I could tell, because her eyes are so completely revelatory, and on this day they were vivid.

I counted too my wife, not quite asleep in the seat beside me. I am blessed that she will spend all this time with my family in cramped quarters: in twin beds in my first childhood bedroom, around a dining room table made for six or eight but somehow accommodating a dozen or more, on shopping outings during which the itinerary is not her own but must be coordinated among other women and kids and minivans. That’s not what I counted as a blessing that morning, though. I counted the knowledge, no, more than that – the cerebral and emotional and spiritual connection – that we are genuinely made for one another. Somebody stop me before I write a Keith Urban song.

I counted other things in that silence, some less profound, like the surprising number of miles on the odometer, and how well the van has held up during all those journeys. I wondered what had become of the inflatable yard decorations I had taken down before we left. They were full of water, and I stashed a couple in the basement and one on the back porch. (Yes, we put out three enormous inflatable yard decorations. That’s how we roll.) Then I remembered my Christmas presents and the kids’, and I looked forward to playing with them.

Even today, a week later, I can’t remember all the fun stuff we did over Christmas and the funny lines that made me laugh so hard. Give me a few months and I’ll struggle to remember just how many people we visited with. But this I know, and this I will remember: I am blessed.

Never Thought I’d be on a Boat December 3, 2009

Posted by markgeil in Family, Music, Travel.
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I promise, this is going to be a post about our recent cruise, but first please permit me to comment on my favorite awards show, the Grammys. It will all fit. Trust me.

What, you ask, was the biggest news from the recent announcement of Grammy nominations?

Not the number of times Taylor Swift and Beyonce will compete head-to-head in the same category (think VMA and Kanye).

Not the appearance in the Best Rock Instrumental Performance, alongside the likes of Jeff Beck and Steve Vai, of country star Brad Paisley for Playing with Fire.

Not the similar outlier on Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance. You hear Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young and you don’t expect to add Prince to the list.

Not even the brash deletion of an entire category of nominations: Polka is gone! Oh, the humanity!

No, the biggest surprise is a certain song nominated in Category 33: Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. The aforementioned Beyonce is there, along with Kanye, Jay-Z, Ne-Yo, Rihanna, T.I., even Justin Timberlake. But one of the five nominated songs is the biggest surprise of the Grammys: I’m on a Boat, by the Lonely Island f/T-Pain. This is the trio of writers from Saturday Night Live responsible for classics like Lazy Sunday (“We love the Chronic-WHAT?-cles of Nar-ni-a!”) and several other off-color digital shorts. I laughed really hard when I saw I’m on a Boat on SNL, and on the occasion of our cruise, I just had to show it to Amy, despite the incredibly coarse language that is apparent through the beeps. I knew at some point on the cruise I would be singing the autotuned “Never thought I’d be on a bo-at!” and no explanation would do the line justice. Now, against all odds, the song is officially Grammy-nominated.

So yes, we cruised over the Thanksgiving break, and since it was in fact my first cruise ever, I did on several occasions croon, “Never thought I’d be on boat!” along with lines about my flippie-floppies and the following gem:

“I’m the king of the world, on a boat like Leo / If you’re on the shore, then you’re sure not me-oh!”

We stayed a night in Orlando and toured Downtown Disney long enough to buy cool Legos before driving over the Port Canaveral, where we got our first glimpse of our massive Royal Caribbean boat, the Monarch of the Seas. Seriously, there are lots of cruise ships and all, but ours was THE Monarch. All other ships bow in her presence. So there.

After unloading our 47 suitcases, we checked in at the terminal and the gastronomical abundance got a kick-start: free cookies and lemonade! In the terminal! We weren’t even on the Monarch yet! I already knew I was in for a good ride.

We boarded the Monarch, the first of something like 100 times scanning our little cruise ID cards, and went straight to the top deck where we were told they were serving lunch. Since we arrived even before the first scheduled boarding time and a full 5 hours before the Monarch took to her seas (which she rules), I pretty much expected a big deli tray. Wowzers, was I wrong! There was a full buffet, with dozens of regional cuisines represented, and more lemonade and cookies! I got a plate full of paella and we all found a table, but then I had to go try to change our dinner seating time. When I finally returned, my tastes had changed, so I switched to pizza. How cool is that? From paella to pizza in one meal, just ‘cause I wanted to.

I ate like a king (I was on the Monarch, after all) the whole cruise: lamb, duck, prime rib, a fabulous Thanksgiving feast, delectable desserts like opera cake and passion fruit mousse… I’m getting hungry just typing this. I also tried my first escargot, which was marvelous. Hannah’s take on the snails: “Delicious, yet disturbing.”

I did more than just eat, although that would have been enough to satisfy me quite nicely. We played in Coco Cay for a day, enjoying the Caribbean’s largest inflatable water slide.

It’s hard to think that just one week ago I was walking sandy beaches under sunny skies and swimming with sting rays. In Nassau we went on a snorkeling trip to a nearby reef, and once again I marveled at the little miracles of creation that God has tucked all over the earth, little treats left for us to discover.

 

As a family we won a bronze medal at the Pictionary competition; I proudly wore my medal the rest of the evening. Here’s one of my favorite pics from the cruise. I was so swept up by the food and our medals and all the frivolity that I decided to tap my glass and offer a toast. That’s milk in my glass. Amy thinks that Mark + Medal + Milk = Dork.

 

I haven’t even mentioned the rock wall and the girls’ speed climbing prowess, or the build-a-boat competition, or the towel animals, or the Straw Market in Nassau, or the wonderful food. Oh wait, I did mention that last one. Suffice it to say I could get used to life aboard the Monarch. So, I’ve decided that if the Lonely Island win a Grammy, we absolutely must cruise again. And you must join us.