Remember: always lift with your legs (not your back)!

SignAtLivingstone

(Maybe they should add “No heavy lifting” at the bottom of that sign,  eh?) It happened on Day 10 of our African safari, leaving me in excruciating pain for the last five days of my vacation. There I was, preparing to check out of the David Livingstone Safari Lodge Spa in Livingstone, Zambia,  before moving on to Mfuwe Lodge in the South Luangwa National Park. If you’ve traveled as part of a group, you know the drill: place your luggage near your door (outside or inside) for the porters to collect. My backpack was all ready and sitting on a chair. I picked it up, twisted to the left, and bent over to place the backpack on the floor. Pop! (Yes, I actually heard – and felt – a pop.) There went one of the discs in my back. Those of you who’ve suffered a herniated disc (aka bulging disc) know the pain, right? Wow. Never experienced that before.

I somehow made it through the day and the short airplane ride to Mfuwe, and even through the night, but only with the last of the painkillers that were supposed to be for my migraines. (I wouldn’t be able to lay on my back or on my left side for the next several weeks.) At first, though, I didn’t think it was too bad and went through a whole day of bumpy jeep rides that just made it worse. By the next morning, I couldn’t bear it any more and inquired with the lodge staff about acquiring more pain killers. Good news: there were volunteer doctors who serviced the area lodges; bad news: it would cost $200 for the “house” call (because the doctor must actually examine you in person). I balked at that, but realized if I was going to enjoy any more bumpy safari jeeps, I’d need more pills. So there went $200 of my spending money.

The doc’s name was Janet (yep – another Janet!) and if I remember right, she was also from California. She and her husband were on a six-month rotation where a medical charity pays for the trip to Africa in exchange for the doctors providing care to the local villagers and also to tourists. She diagnosed a herniated lumbar 4-5 disc (an MRI after I got home changed that to lumbar 2-3). And she gave me pain killers! Yippee. I can say that I most definitely would not have survived those very long plane rides back home to California without them.

VervetMonkeyBut before you begin to think this is all about the pills, no, this is about the most wonderful service provided by the staff at Mfuwe Lodge. While the rest of the group went off on a jeep ride, I tried to find a comfortable spot out in the common area just in case more elephants came wandering through. The staff got me water and some crackers to snack on so the pain killers wouldn’t upset my stomach. And then…the Vervet Monkeys who had free run of  the lodge got very interested in my crackers.  They tried to steal my crackers.

ManWithSlingshotI was positive I had his name written down in my trip notes, but I can’t find it. But here he is, my hero! He got out his slingshot and nobly defended me and my crackers. And he was a good shot too! I feel terrible that I can’t find his name – but I did give him a thank you hug before we checked out.

And before I forget, many thanks to Mike and his wife Pat, fellow members of my tour group, who gave me Pat’s orthopedic seat cushion to make my trip home more bearable.

 

 

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…but I’ve been to Oklahoma

Is it just me or is it beginning to sound like a Three Dog Night song around here?

Here I am preparing for the Camino and…rats…gotta run out of town for a quick business trip. But I’m back now and, shaking off that disruption, trying to finish getting everything ready that I need for Spain with less than two weeks left. Got extra memory for the camera, got the European plug adapter, got a ready supply of allergy and migraine meds….but more items still to acquire. Not to mention this is the last week of my graduate “Introduction to Emergency Management” class with one more paper to write (yet another distraction from my Camino prep). Wish me luck getting back on track!

In the meantime, I did get to enjoy myself last week in Oklahoma where they have delicious barbecue, juicy steaks (Cattleman’s), damn good fried chicken (Eischen’s),beer served margarita-style (ChelinosChellenosand old-fashioned shrimp boils on back patios spiced up with a visit to a tornado shelter and a little 4-year-old running around chanting “Boomer Sooner, Texas Sucks” to taunt our colleagues from Texas. (Yes, her father put her up to that.)

I also got to have some more Twitter fun @TheFarPlaces with #PenguinAboutTown who – despite his diminutive stature – has developed a fondness for food, beer, and gambling.Penguin_gambling Fortunately he’s too short to drive my car otherwise I might wake up one morning to find it parked half on the sidewalk/half in the bushes, full of empty beer bottles and fast food wrappers. Some people think Penguin is adorable, some think his photo antics are cute, and others think his Twitter appearances are corny and/or dumb.

Penguin_Beer

So…if you’re one of the latter, brace yourself because, yes, Penguin will be going with me to Spain, where he will (temporarily) become #PinguinoEnEspana. (Please correct me if that is a wrong translation for #PenguinInSpain.)

(Sadly, Penguin does not have his own separate twitter feed; #PenguinAboutTown is too many characters long – violating Twitter naming rules, so he has to share mine @TheFarPlaces.) So, please, if you are so inclined, watch for Penguin on Twitter. I will also be blogging here on WordPress whenever I can.

I’d also like to thank those of you who have offered your comments and suggestions, and provided links to your blogs so I can get better prepared. I’m just catching up with myself now, so once I get that last paper written for Crisis Management, I will be checking out all of your helpful information. Thanks!!

Never been to Spain…

…but in a couple of months, I will!

CAMINO-DE-SANTIAGO-MAPA5

 

It’s not the trip I had envisioned for myself this year, but sometimes fate intervenes. I was looking through my options for an African safari but the variety of itineraries and available dates did not meet my needs, especially because I am specifically interested in including Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia where the local herd of elephants are known to hang around and even walk through the lobby…but primarily in November when the nearby mango trees bear fruit. Apparently they’re very fond of those mangoes. Of course, one can never guarantee a particular experience when wildlife is involved, but I’d like to maximize my chances of witnessing these magnificent, intelligent and emotional creatures quietly filing through the lobby. I’d also like to combine the safari with a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but I’m not quite in shape for a hike up 19,000+ feet of mountainous terrain. I’m in good shape, yes, but I still need to prepare more for such a feat, and so I’m putting those plans off until next year.

With plans up in the air, and me casting about for a particular destination on my extremely long list of must-see places to jump up and shout “pick me” I was surprised when a good friend, and fellow writer, Xina Marie Uhl, announced that she was going to do Camino de Santiago, an ancient 500-mile pilgrimage route across Northern Spain favored by both religious adherents and hiking enthusiasts. When she asked if I would like to accompany her, I said yes without hesitation. (There were the twin caveats of securing time off from work and arranging pet sitting, but as they say, “where this is a will, there is a way.”)

Xina is doing it for reasons of faith and I admire her for her belief that “the spirit has called” her to do this pilgrimage at this particular time. Although not religious myself, I support my friends who are and enjoy attending their children’s baptisms or confirmations. So I’ve told Xina I’ll be her emotional support, butt-kicker (when needed) and plucky comic relief.

Why am I doing it? For the challenge, to prove to myself that I am as strong as I believe I am. (And, yes, as training for Mount Kilimanjaro.) And you might say I’m doing it for my spirit. As you know, I’ve been dealing with migraines, and while I’m doing much better, I still don’t feel back to my old self. I miss myself. I miss my creativity, the ability to turn scraps of paper with scribbled ideas on them into short stories in a matter of days. Seeking to re-awaken my brain by going to graduate school is helping, but it’s not enough. My spirit needs more. It needs the open road, my own two feet, a small camera, a notebook. It needs freedom.

Circles

blogphototrackMany days you find yourself right back where you started.

The short story which remains unfinished; the screenplay which remains unstarted; the photo organization photo stalled; the kitchen still dirty.

Excuses are everywhere: too many projects, too many ideas, tugging you in different directions; or yet another migraine dragging your brain down into mucky pits of stagnation and dullness.

But sometimes excuses are good ones. Like friendship. Instead of spending yet another day at the computer trying to think of effective marketing strategies, I spent Saturday walking. And walking. And walking. In a big circle around a dirt track at a local middle school. One of my friends is a breast cancer survivor and every year she participates in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. Since I can’t afford to donate money, I do what I can. I walk the track with her, supporting her in her goal to raise the much needed funds for research.

Amidst the sun, the wind, and the allergens assaulting me, I remind myself that migraines, debilitating as they are, aren’t cancer. And I remind myself that writer’s block, although it can be deadly to my career, won’t kill me. So I walk, and let my brain float free with no thoughts other than those of putting one foot in front of the other. If a cancer survivor can do this, so can I.

So, days later, I continue to put one foot in front of the other. And I continue to hit one key on the keyboard after the other.

Progress in defeating my migraines is slow, but steady. With the help of acupuncture, every week shows improvement. I can look at that bottle of pain killers and say, I don’t need one of those.

And I will (WILL) finish that zombie story which popped into my head during my Baja vacation (way back in March). I will finish a first draft by Sunday. If I don’t, you can scold me. The first draft may not be pretty, but it will be done. One stumbling zombie step at a time.

It was a dark and stormy night….

Oh, wait…. It was a dark and starlit evening on the beach of Isla San José in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

ImageNaturalist Jack Swenson strums his guitar, singing tunes from John Denver, Roger Miller, and Jimmy Buffett. Arrayed around the bonfire are the passengers and crew of the National Geographic Sea Lion. The ship floats just off shore, its deck lights no competition for the embers blowing off the fire or the watchful gaze of Orion from overhead.

It’d been a long day of snorkeling with sea creatures and hiking desert arroyos. One in a stream of days filled with playful gray whale calves cavorting around our zodiacs, breaching humpback whales, bow riding orcas, and hundreds of dolphins. Yet our journey is only halfway done. There was much more to come for all of us: the retired teachers, the “Michigan Mafia” (really just a group of IT workers from the University of Michigan), the Washington State University couple who have brought along their stuffed cougar mascot (for photo ops of course), the older gentleman who plays solitaire every afternoon while his wife watches (quite a hiker he turned out to be!), the father and daughter from Singapore, the ship’s doctor and his wife, the two sisters – one of whom still bears black eyes from a trip and fall in the Cabo airport, the fellow Pepsi lovers, and the veterinarian.

And it had been a trying day, for me anyway. But I refused to let the migraine trying to establish itself behind my right eye prevent me from enjoying the company of my fellow travelers. And enjoyable they were. Sharing photography tips, keeping a watchful eye out for those of us more timid snorkelers, laughing over beers and stories of travels, and suggesting future trips (as if my dream destination list isn’t already long enough!)

For now, our barbecue over, marshmallows being roasted over the fire, and Jack’s smooth voice floating across the sand and water, we relax and settle quietly in each other’s company far from home. Image

Zombie Rhyme Time

I love the English language. Yeah, it pisses me off sometimes, or maybe it’s just the way people abuse it, unaware that “there” “their” and “they’re” don’t mean the same thing and aren’t interchangeable. But I digress. I love the way we can play with English. Word games, riddles, rhymes, and puns. (My story “The Human Jean Gnome Project” is basically one long pun. You can find it in my e-book, “Gnomes and Aliens” on Kindle.) Really, is there a language sillier than English?

In that vein, and because I’ve had little time to ponder this week’s blog posting while I work on curing my chronic zombiefying migraines, I composed a couple of zombie rhymes for you:

As you cower in fear

of the undead far and near

Holed up in the local mall

armed with just a bowling ball

While tvs play old game shows

would it shock you all to know

that the gruesome zombie

only wishes to shop at Abercrombie.

 

 

Should the zombies catch you in Europe

surrounded by blubbering tourists

Just remember this old refrain

the brains in Spain lay mainly in the drain.

Needles and Pins

ImageI never before pictured myself as a pincushion, but there I was on my back, with tiny, thin needles in my feet, hands, and left ear. And a couple in my left leg.

If you’ve never tried acupuncture, it’s hard to describe the sensation of those little needles going in, but they don’t hurt. Except for the ones in my ear, and I gradually got used to those. What was weird – and painful – for me were the sensations inside my head as the acupuncturist chased the pain from one spot inside my brain to another with each needle insertion. Not that I’ve never before had headaches which moved around, but to feel them do so decisively at the behest of an outside influence is just, well, weird. Finally, the pain seemed trapped on the upper right side as the acupuncturist inserted one last needle and left the room, letting my body adjust and to heal.

The pain wasn’t finished of course. It had itself a merry little dance from the right side of my brain to the left, and back, settling into a strange-feeling patch of pressure around my right ear, and then back over to the left, before – perhaps with nowhere else to go – it slipped away, leaving my brain finally free. A stupendous feeling.

That may not seem like such a big deal to someone who suffers from only an occasional headache, but to a migraine sufferer or someone with chronic headaches or cluster headaches, having a pain-free brain sometimes feels like a miracle. Especially for me lately. These past few months have seen maybe five pain-free days each month, leaving me in a perpetual fog. Know what it’s like to feel as if your brain is wearing a wet fuzzy sock? I do. It’s especially frustrating for a writer like myself, with my ability to concentrate, to create, rapidly diminishing under the onslaught of pain and medication. This had become the norm for me. My brain had come to expect the pain, to look for it. Image

But I cannot let myself succumb to this new normal. Not only do I need to function in daily life, I also need to write. And that’s become increasingly harder as the months crawl by. (Hell, I haven’t even been able to muster enough motivation to read a book.) So I’ve decided to try something different, an alternative medicine which some people are skeptical about, but which others I know have had success in dealing with chronic pain and other issues. I’ve only had one treatment so far, and it’s not an instant cure, but I’m willing to try. I want to try. I want the old me back.

The pain won’t give up the fight easily. I can already feel it trying to worm its way back through my brain, trying to take over my life once again. But I can fight back. And I’m looking forward to a good fight!Image