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London Wanderlust February 23, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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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.


50 Reasons December 16, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Awana, Family.
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Last week at Awana, Rebekah frantically scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper, vigilant to keep it from her parents’ prying eyes. “Don’t look!” she kept reminding us, and I tried to recall which Awana assignment would require such secretive effort. Finally, she produced the finished product: “50 Reasons Why I Love You”, with the word love replaced by a heart. It looks like it was originally going to be 25 reasons why she hearts us, but at some point she got ambitious and changed it to 50. The list is a beautiful Christmas gift for Amy and me, containing some very perceptive and thoughtful insight about this sweet 10-year-old and our family. Here are a few of the 50 Reasons:

1. You’re Awesome

‘Nuff said. A nice, overarching complement. I would have been fine if that was the only one.

5. You take me to church
5. You take me to AWANA(s)  🙂

This is excellent for two reasons. First, Bek accidentally put two #5’s in, so it’s really 51 reasons she hearts us! Second, she made me laugh by sticking an “s” on the end of Awana, knowing it secretly bugs me when people say “Awanas”, since it’s an acronym with no “s”.

9. You let me choose for myself
27. You let me have my own world
28. You don’t force things on me.

Here’s where Bek started getting a little philosophical. She’s the third child, and I know from personal experience that third children get assimilated into a lot of their older siblings’ activities and expectations. With these reasons, Bek notes that we’ve somehow managed to let her forge some of her own identity. I didn’t really know we did it, but I’m glad she feels a bit empowered.  She deserves it.

24. You cuddle with me

Oh, this might be my favorite! I do love to snuggle with Bek. She calls these times our “cuddle sessions”, and I know their days are numbered, so I cherish each one.

35. You taught me my sight words

Here’s where Bek probably realized that any list of 50 items is long! So, she might have been stretching, but she does make me laugh. I think “laugh” might be a sight word!

38. You fight with mean teachers
39. You praise nice teachers

I love this recognition. Bek knows that we’ve got her back, and that her Mommy in particular will gladly take up her cause in the face of some school injustice. But she’s also learning a balance. Yes, there are times when we must fight for ourselves, but that can’t be our only mission. There’s also a place for praise.

41. You take pictures of me

This one really resonates with me as a youngest child myself. I like to joke that while my older brothers had all sorts of professional portraits with matching monogrammed suits and cute little hats, there is no photographic record of my childhood. Not true, of course, but I’m nonetheless determined to photograph my youngest child often. And apparently she notices.

46. You buy me sock-monkey notebooks

Okay, now she’s really stretching!

49. You thank me for helping in the smallest ways

She’s the smallest, so perhaps she doesn’t always feel like she makes the largest contributions, but I’m glad she knows that everything she offers, big or small, is appreciated and valued.

And finally,

50. You’re willing to do just about anything for me

My goodness, after reading a list like this, who wouldn’t be?

Some Rich Wisdom September 14, 2011

Posted by markgeil in The words of others far more wise than I.
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I’m having a Rich Mullins day, and this morning I had occasion not only to listen to his music but also to read some of his words. I like what he said during a chapel service at Wheaton back in 1997, as transcribed over at the treasure trove of all that is Rich, http://www.kidbrothers.net/. Rich was explaining a passage from the gospel of Mark:

And in case you’re not familiar entirely with the story, it goes that Jesus was blessing little kids. You know, I’m trying to think through this thing and I’m going, well how do you bless children? Cause I find them barely tolerable, let alone something you’d want to bless. So I’m thinking I’ve got all these nieces and nephews and stuff, how have I blessed them, and the only thing I could think of is, you know you pick them up and you throw them as high in the air as you can and you catch them right before they splat. Or, you get down on all fours and you know, they ride you and you try to buck them off, and that kind of thing.

So I’m trying to picture Jesus doing this and then the disciples they come up and they see Jesus who-you know they’re good monotheists so they’re really I’m sure struggling with His claims to be equal to God. And they see Him you know, and they’re kinda going, well you know when you put on that really straight academic face of yours and charge us with a lot of information, we can kinda buy it then, but here you’re acting like an idiot. And it’s hard enough to believe that smart people could be the Son of God, let alone this-this-bumbling idiot, that’s rolling around in the dirt with the children. And Jesus says, ‘hey guys, knock it off. If you want to come into My kingdom, you have to come in like one of these. You have to come in like a child. You have to let me throw you up in the air and catch you right before you splat. You have to ride on my back and let me buck you off. We have to wrestle a little, we have to play a little.’

50 Years August 10, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Family, People.
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Sunday evening I had the distinct privilege of attending a party for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. They were married on July 21st at 7:00 in a small Church of the Brethren in Virginia back in 1961. Here’s the happy couple:


They were teenagers, 18 and 19 years old, with the sparkle of young love in their eyes and unsuspecting of the future ahead of them. They were two hours away from buying a farm, in keeping with their lineage and the typical expectations of the area, before someone else got a loan before them because he had a cosigner. They would have been a good farming couple, but God had different plans. Dad has always been good with his hands, with an aptitude for engineering and building stuff, so he landed an apprenticeship at General Electric. Then they really ventured out into the unknown when he got a job at IBM and they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s where I was born, and my parents still live in the same house I grew up in.

My brothers and I were called upon to give speeches at the party. Here’s mine:


Hi, my name is Mark.

Most of you don’t know me because, well, I’m the third child.

There is no photographic record of my childhood.

My birth was an inconvenience because I apparently interrupted one of my brothers’ little league games.

Steve used to call me “the tax deduction”.

Mine was a life of hand-me-downs and also-rans. Of patches sewn on top of patches on the knees of old blue jeans. Of used Nerf footballs that already had little chunks of foam torn out.

Yes, my brothers got all kinds of attention, what with Steve running into his brick walls and Eric choking on his chicken bones. Was I jealous? No, of course not. Well, I’ll admit I was insanely jealous of Steve’s authentic Batmobile, complete with Batman costume and cape.


 And I was a little jealous of the pictures. Steve and Eric, in their cute little monogrammed sweaters and caps, in a professional portrait studio. Me, naked in the back yard by the swing set.


 [I’m the one on the horse, with the curiously elliptical head.]

How is it possible, then, that I have grown up to become at least marginally well-adjusted? It’s safe to say that Mom and Dad had a lot to do with that. I suppose I’ve exaggerated a bit, and they did give me some attention during my childhood. In fact, as Sarah was putting together the slide show, I even noticed actual pictures of myself! One in particular made me smile.

It’s a picture of Steve about to shoot his beloved younger brothers.


 It was taken at an old Pony Express Station in Nebraska when I was 5 years old. We were passing through on a trip to California, in a mini-Midas RV with a big orange stripe on the outside, following our Triple-A TripTik. The Pony Express station wasn’t on our route, but I really wanted to go. And Mom and Dad said, “Sure”, and we left the TripTik route behind.

I had a great time at that Pony Express station, dreaming of cowboys and galloping horses on wide open plains. I bought a little wooden model of a fort, I think, and spent several quality days putting it together.

Here’s what this picture symbolizes for me. First, let’s not miss the point that our dear mother consented to a five-week trip across the country crammed into a mini-motor home with our whole rambunctious family of five! And then, seven years later, she did it again, and this time the majority of the occupants of the RV were teenage boys!

And let’s not forget that Dad saved up vacation for years on end so we could take those trips. And that he, from such humble beginnings, was able to establish such a wonderful career that afforded us so much.

They’ve both taught me so much about sacrifice and selflessness. About priorities. And about the kind of love that will say, even to an oft-forgotten third child, “Sure, let’s go to the Pony Express Station.” I make decisions now with my own children, and sometimes, when they’re good decisions, I stop and realize, “That’s exactly what Mom and Dad would have done with me.”

In reality, my childhood was grand. We had the run of the neighborhood, a fertile landscape for games of Cowboys and Indians or football on that knee-scraping cul de sac we simply called
“the circle”. We had adventures, like lowering each other into the storm drain to chase a wayward ball. We chopped wood and made forts, and rode our bikes down hills that looked impossibly steep to 8-year-old eyes.

And all through it, we had a Mom and Dad: to keep us in line when we needed it, to bandage the scrapes and pull out the ticks. To encourage the creativity and freedom, and to make sure there was always a safe refuge in that dear little house on Woodlea Drive.

Mom and Dad, you loved us like Christ first loved both of you. You taught us what a good marriage is all about, and what it means to be a good parent, and the beautiful flock of grandchildren here tonight is your legacy. Thank you for everything. God bless you, and happy anniversary!


I could have gone on and on about what great parents Mom and Dad were, and are, and about how many lives they’ve touched in their own simple way, but I didn’t need to. The room full of family and friends were a living testimony. Following our speeches Dad said a few words, though tears, and went back to his seat to join his beloved bride when applause turned into one of those spontaneous and completely sincere standing ovations that are so rare. Mom and Dad sat and held hands, and though she heard the applause she had not noticed the standing. Dad prompted her to turn around, and her look of appreciation and surprise is one I’ll long treasure.

Here’s that flock of grandchildren I mentioned, nine great kids who love their “Ge-Ge” and “G-Dad”. May we be so highly favored that, like my mom and dad, our lives and our marriages impact generations.


A Father Looks at Forty July 15, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings.
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It was a halcyon image. A mother and her preschooler with armfuls of sidewalk chalk stood back, admiring their work. “Happy Birthday Mrs. Ruth!” declared their multicolored message, stretched from one driveway to the next in front of a presumably unsuspecting neighbor’s house.

I imagined Mrs. Ruth, probably an older lady, smiling when she arrives home. Then I imagined the smiles the little girl brings when she plays in Ruth’s yard. Other images played like a photo album on my short drive home through our neighborhood:

Two boys, on the way home from the pool, hurried to a shady spot because the sidewalk burned hot in the Atlanta sun.

A child, on a walk with her parents, switched to holding mommy’s other hand to avoid the spirited dog coming her way.

A frustrated father stooped over to push a little bicycle while the helmeted child walked alongside.

And then, for a moment, there was me, all philosophical, pondering my place among these scenes of the stages of life. I even let a Jimmy Buffet chorus escape my lips, out loud, there in the car by myself: “Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late. The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder, I’m an over-forty victim of fate, arriving too late, arriving too late.”

The words don’t exactly fit me. I like to sail but I really don’t think I’d have been a very good pirate. I’m neither discontent nor disconcerted. But I AM forty years old, as of June 28th. Seems like one is supposed to get all philosophical when one turns 40 so, mainly out of sense of obligation, I sang out strong and pondered my place.

My children are growing up. We’re scouting out colleges instead of preschools. The girls’ ages are all in double digits. Rebekah was born the day before my 30th birthday, so she just turned 10. She got her ears pierced, and she’s getting all leggy and tall. Mind you, there’s still loads of childlike silliness and life in our house, but I can’t avoid certain monumental thoughts:

A year from now, we’ll be thinking about what to do with a spare bedroom when Sarah moves off to college.

I’m probably closer, chronologically, to holding a grandchild than I am to holding my own baby children.

Forty is halfway, right? It’s probably over halfway.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not really sad about any of this. A favorite thing for seasoned parents to say to their younger counterparts concerns the pace. “Don’t blink,” they say. “They’ll only be that little for a second. It goes by so fast.”

I suppose that’s true, and maybe we’ve heeded that advice, but I feel like time’s passages are pretty appropriate. I feel like we’ve squeezed a lot of life into these years, and we’ve been so very blessed. My memory of Sarah’s first steps seems as distant now as my memory of my own childhood, but that’s okay. We’re making new memories, and even though they’re growing up, the children are taking new “first steps” all the time, and I’m still there, hands outstretched, guarding and protecting and celebrating.

So when I do step back and philosophically view my life from a wide-angle lens – which is good to do every now and then – the images are halcyon. And as I look at forty, I do so with nostalgia and not regret, with anticipation and not melancholy, and above all, with gratitude.

Belize, days four and five May 21, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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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

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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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

Posted by markgeil in Travel.

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

Posted by markgeil in Travel.

[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!

At the Dove Awards April 20, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Music.
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Today is the day, the first time the GMA Dove Awards (the Christian music version of the Grammys) leaves Tennessee and, fortunately for me, lands in Atlanta.

I’m covering the event for www.TheSoundOpinion.com, and I’ve just logged in my first post and tweets. Looks to be a fun day!