Posted by: habentravels | September 29, 2013

Touching People, the ProTactile Way

Two women walk up to the table. They stop and sign. Then the taller woman–Deafblind–reaches out to me. Her left hand touches my chest, takes a second to re-orient, then moves up to my right shoulder. Blind people occasionally reach out for a handshake and unintentionally make contact with a part of the body that feels nothing like a hand. Some people cringe with embarrassment, and some people laugh it off. Others, like the woman with her hand on my shoulder, feel so comfortable with the use of their hands to experience the world that they seem to accept accidental so-called inappropriate touching with a natural grace.

I reached my hand up to my shoulder to start signing in her hand. We introduced ourselves using Tactile American Sign Language. As I signed, she kept a hand over my dominant signing hand. As she signed, I kept a hand over her signing hand. I learned that her name is Jelica and her sign name is like the sign for Yugoslavia, her country of birth.

Jelica and AJ are the two Deafblind presenters for the ProTactile Workshop at the Northwest Symposium on Rehabilitation and Deafness. They began their presentation by greeting audience members one-on-one. ProTactile represents a lifestyle, a philosophy, and an attitude. Their decision to greet members of the audience through a handshake, a touch on the shoulder, and a signed greeting exemplifies their ProTactile philosophy. While sighted Deaf individuals can perceive personality through facial expressions and hearing blind individuals gain insights through listening to people’s voices, Deafblind people need to utilize their sense of touch. In order for that to happen, society must permit DB folks to transcend traditional American barriers for personal space, and the DB person herself must overcome internalized prohibitions against touching.

Since blind individuals grow up in sighted culture, the supposedly instinctive desire to know the world through touch may be overpowered by the dominant culture’s condemnation of physical contact. Teachers and family members drill these messages into children. “Keep your hands to yourself,” and “No touching,” were regularly heard throughout the playground and classrooms of my elementary school. At the time, I lacked the vocabulary and self-awareness to explain how the American cultural perception of personal space limits a blind person’s interactions with the world. Without the ability to see smiles, a wave, or make eye contact, a tactile greeting becomes necessary.

Touching provides knowledge and understanding, carrying a depth that mere words fail to provide. Jelica later told me that signing or typing “haha” feels so superficial compared to holding her hand up to a person’s throat or shoulder to feel sincere laughter.

Is there a point where touching becomes inappropriate even for DB individuals? Blind and Deafblind individuals who navigate the mainstream professional world learn to balance their need to know through touch and society’s need to set boundaries for personal space. I wonder..that time when I asked a White House agent if I could touch the Presidential Seal, or that time I sought to perceive Stevie Wonder through a hug, did I go too far, straying into unprofessionalism? Will society accept DB individuals’ attempts to re-define personal space in the professional world?

Throughout their workshop at the Northwest Symposium on Rehabilitation and Deafness, AJ and Jelica provide numerous examples of how DB individuals can receive social and emotional information through touch. Fortunately, they share all of their valuable techniques and tips (with videos!) on their website: Go learn from these incredible leaders!

Posted by: habentravels | August 31, 2012

Living a Dream in Barcelona

Displayed prominently near the entrance, the sign welcomes visitors with an enchanting reminder, “Barcelona Is a Never-Ending Dream!” Whenever I walked by the reception desk at Be Dream Hostel, I felt the spell-binding force of the sign urging travelers to relax in the magic of Barcelona. Although I prefer being realistic, I allowed myself to be swept away by the dreamy promise of the sign. We immediately turned it into our mantra, reciting it numerous times throughout the day. Whenever anything extraordinary occurred, we’d explain it away as part of the never-ending dream of Barcelona.

Looking back at our four days in Barcelona, the memories blend together a bit like a dream. Countless friendly people stepped in and out of my life, never to be seen again.  Wonderful food and pastries, historic sites, and, of course, the Mediterranean Sea. Our hostel was only a ten minute walk from the Mediterranean. We stopped by our first night there, and even at the late hour people were lounging on the cool sand and kids were splashing in the waves.

For the longest time, Barcelona remained just a far-off dream. Back in February a good friend told me about her amazing experience studying Spanish in Barcelona. My trip to Spain was just beginning to transform into a real possibility, and after hearing H’Sien talk about her time in Barcelona, the magical city immediately planted itself into my travel plans. In April I discovered Alejandra through Mobility International USA. She quickly became a friend, and, later, an amazing guide in Madrid. I contacted several organizations in Barcelona to try to find a guide, but nothing came. Two weeks before my departure for Spain, I learned that a woman who worked as a Support Service Provider (SSP) in Boston would be traveling in Europe and was trying to pick a place to visit. I used all the persuasive skills I have developed at law school to convince her to visit Barcelona. Whether my powers of persuasion or the enchanting call of Barcelona ultimately influenced her decision, Karen agreed to join me.

Nearly a week after learning that I would be able to go to Barcelona with Karen, another woman I knew from Boston (Miriam) told me she was living in Madrid for the summer. What a coincidence! She asked about my plans in Spain, and I told her I was going to visit Barcelona for a few days. She, too, was eager to visit Barcelona but didn’t know anyone there. She asked if she could join me in Barcelona, and I, of course, said yes. After thinking for months that I would not be able to go to Barcelona at all, I felt so lucky to suddenly have two people with whom to explore that city. Did I mention that Barcelona is a never-ending dream?

A Support Service Provider (SSP) is a professional trained to provide environmental information to persons who are deafblind. I felt so lucky to have Karen when visiting the cultural sites. One of Barcelona’s famous plazas is Plaza de Catalunya. This spacious plaza in central Barcelona is decorated with colorful tiles and dotted with ornate statutes. Two grand fountains overlook the plaza, and on the other side of the fountains is…an Apple Store! Like most Apple Stores, it was bustling with shoppers. Along one side of the plaza is a famous street called Las Ramblas. The street has a wide central strip that is only for pedestrians. You can find anything from souvenir shops to restaurants in the middle of Las Ramblas, with cars struggling to move through the heavy pedestrian traffic on either side of the central island. More shops and restaurants lined the two sides of the streets, with narrow side streets that lead to even more shopping areas and small plazas. The three of us slowly made our way down Las Ramblas, taking it all in. A few blocks down Las Ramblas we turned down several pedestrian-only streets to find the Jewish Quarter, which housed the oldest synagogue in Europe. Through the friendly docent and Miriam’s excellent explanations, I learned a lot about Jewish traditions there.

Before coming to Barcelona, I dreamed of going salsa dancing there. During the summer in Boston I would salsa dance at least once a week with a friend who actually teaches salsa. In the weeks leading up to my trip, Kerry Thompson helped me improve my skills, perhaps so I wouldn’t embarrass America when I would go salsa dancing in Spain. One evening in Barcelona, Karen and I researched top salsa spots. Barcelona is very much a nocturnal city, with clubs opening around 11 or 12 and closing around 5 AM. We arrived at the salsa place at 10 PM to take a peek. An older Italian met us at the door and ushered us inside. “Scola, scola,” he said. A school? was this a dance school?! Fifteen couples practiced salsa steps under the guidance of an instructor. I asked what time the dancing would start, but the man did not understand. Perhaps he didn’t speak Spanish? Just Italian and Catalan (the native language of Barcelona). Karen tapped her wrist and gestured dancing. This the Italian understood. People say in Spain that Italians talk with their hands and gesture with their mouths. With this particular Italian, we definitely found it easier to communicate through signs and gestures than trying to use Spanish or English! He lead us outside and pointed to a sign that said dancing would start at 11 PM. We thanked him and began to leave to find food, but he told us to wait.  A few seconds later he came back outside holding two tickets. With his right hand he made the familiar Italian gesture for “money” or “expensive.” Oh my, did we just get two free tickets to Barcelona’s hottest salsa club, and a dance school to boot? Only in a dream…

Why did he give us free tickets, though? Did he like Americans? Did he simply find Karen and I charming? Did he feel a certain generosity upon seeing my white cane? Perhaps he wanted to see if blind people could dance? If I over-analyzed his actions, I might detect a potential sliver of condescension–maybe he assumed people with disabilities couldn’t afford dance clubs, let alone have the ability to dance! I refused to let my mind pursue a negative train of thought. Instead, I conjured up that cheery sign from Be Dream Hostel. The charming Italian gave us free tickets to Barcelona’s best salsa club because we’re living in a never-ending dream!

After a delicious dinner of seafood and chocolate truffles, we returned to the dance club. The very friendly Italian lead us to a cozy couch in the back and brought us complimentary drinks. He pointed to our purses and gestured for us to keep a watchful eye on them. Since Barcelona ranks as the top pickpocket center of Europe, friendly locals reminded us several times throughout our stay to hang on tight to valuables. Their concern for our safety warmed the traveler’s spirit.

After tucking away my purse, I started putting on my dance shoes. Karen excitedly explained, “Oh my goodness! When he saw your shoes he got excited and ran off…and now there’s this other man, and I think he wants to dance with you!” Aha! So the Italian was wondering whether a blind girl can dance! Laughing, I stood up and shook hands with the new guy. If the new man spoke Spanish, Catalan, or even English, I couldn’t hear any of it over the loud music. I could, however, hear his hands. His hands skillfully marked the beat of the music, in an international sign language called Salsa. I relaxed into the familiar language characterized by under-arm turns, cross-body leads, and the basic step in a dizzyingly fast pace. Although slightly more circular than American salsa, I found myself able to follow his style very well. Later, Karen and I discovered that the man was the dance instructor. His name was Jorge, and I danced a few more times with this amazing salsero at Barcelona’s hottest salsa spot. A never-ending dream!

Soon after arriving, we were joined by several English speaking dancers. Suzie was a German woman studying in Whales. She later introduced me to her friend Angeles, an Argentinian woman who works part-time at a hotel in Spain and the rest of the time does acrobatics for a circus. Both women were incredibly warm and friendly. “How did you two meet,” I asked.

Angeles wrapped her arm around Suzie’s shoulders. “Suzie is my brother’s girlfriend. We just met the other day, but I love her already!” They laugh warmly, reveling in their shared bond. Talking and dancing with the girls and their friends chased the night away. Saying goodbye to the girls was very hard–they were so warm, kind, and fun. Angeles had spent some time teaching me new dance steps, a kind of triple step inserted into the basic step. My biggest regret from the whole trip is not asking Angeles and Suzie for their contact info. How does a traveler decide when to exchange contact info with those they meet along the road? I was constantly meeting friendly people. Perhaps people generally wait to feel a certain connection before asking to exchange contact info with someone they might not ever see again, and unfortunately one might not notice the depth of a connection until later, when the opportunity to exchange contact info has passed.

As Karen and I struggled through the crowd to exit the club, we found Jorge, the dance instructor. He hugged us bye, offering several dozen parting words and questions. Karen tried so hard to decipher his Spanish, but it was near impossible. I could hear neither Spanish or English in that noise. Confused and amused, we chanted, “Gracias, gracias.” Jorge was not ready to let us go, so he offered us one last bit of generous assistance. Gesturing us to form a train, he cut a path through the dense crowd, safely leading us to the cool and quiet sidewalk out front. Here he again tried to communicate with us. Luckily, Karen managed to decipher the message. “He’s saying they open at midnight tomorrow, and he wants us to come!” Oh, how I wish! With Karen’s flight back to the US the following day, we couldn’t come back, and I couldn’t gather the Spanish words to explain all of that. Deeply honored and a bit sad, we chanted, “Gracias, gracias.” Barcelona is a sweet never-ending dream…

To my surprise, I quite enjoyed staying at a hostel. Unlike hotels, the hostel operated with the expectation that people wanted to meet and interact with each other. We met Germans and Mexicans over breakfast, chatted with an Australian teacher at another breakfast, and one evening I joined a table with five Danes and one Swede. Two of the Danes, Joanna and Ida, explained that many years ago Sweden won a war with Denmark by sending soldiers marching across the frozen Baltic Sea to Denmark. Ever since, Denmark has had a rule that if you see a Swede coming across the ice, hit him with a stick. This particular Swede seemed to have a sense of humor; not only did he not mind the threat of a beating from five drunk Danes, but he generously let them tease him about his pronunciation of the Danish word for beer, “oel.” “Danes drink A LOT,” reported Ida. From her, I learned that the drinking age is only 16 in Denmark, but many Danes start drinking way before 16. Ida’s best friend had recently been in Chicago and had such a hard time because the poor Dane was only 20 (the legal drinking age in Chicago is 21).

Since I have a really hard time hearing accents, I chatted with other hostel guests via a keyboard and braille display. Since most of the people spoke English as a second or third language, reading their creative spelling was highly entertaining. The J makes a Y sound in Swedish, so when I chatted with the Swede he would use J’s when he meant to use Y’s–”Jep…Jes…etc.” Hilarious. Since I studied Swedish briefly as a kid, I instantly understood his typos. The one down-side to our communication method was that it made it slightly harder to tell if someone was drunk. With native English speakers, I notice a deterioration in typing accuracy as someone drinks. But when I started talking to Ida, I couldn’t tell if typing in English was simply hard for her or if she’d consumed too much “oel.”  Eventually, her continually repeating the same information and confusion clued me in on her love of beer.

On our very last evening in Barcelona, Karen, Miriam, and I chatted about our various adventures as we walked towards the night bus back to the hostel. Miriam had explored the boardwalk along Barcelona’s harbor. Karen and I randomly discovered a street festival with people packed shoulder-to-shoulder shopping, eating, watching dance performances beneath flashing lights. Out of the corner of her eye, Karen saw three men walking behind us. One of them moved his index finger from his mouth to his ear, a gesture in American Sign Language that means Deaf. “I think the man behind us is Deaf!” Miriam and I stopped and turned around.

“Can you sign to him?” I needed to say hello. I had so many questions! Karen waved to him and started signing in American Sign Language (ASL). He joined the three of us, friendly and curious. “Where are you from?” Karen signed to him, and he signed back. He was from Munich, Germany. Although I had so many more questions, we had to let him go–his two friends were waiting for him. According to Karen, his signing seemed very ASL. Why would a German know ASL? Did he happen to know American Sign Language and guessed that we were Americans, or was he using German Sign Language and our conversation was too brief to notice? Is German Sign Language similar to ASL? Either way, it was incredible that we could communicate. The encounter was so spontaneous and fascinating, like a dream…

Posted by: habentravels | August 14, 2012

Tactile Everything

“Gracias.” I grasped the large bottle from Alejandra and set it on the table in front of me. As I did so, I noticed some dots along the side. Could it be? I ran my fingers along the line of dots. I flipped the bottle over and ran my fingers the other way. I tried reading it vertically, then flipped the bottle again and tried reading vertically the other way. The dots along the side of the bottle seemed so much like braille, but I couldn’t read it. Braille letters in Spanish are identical to the English braille letters; the difference is that Spanish braille has additional symbols for letters with accent signs. Reading Spanish braille in Toledo had been straightforward, so what on Earth was up with this bottle? “Maybe its just decoration?” 

“But it looks like braille…” Alejandra turns the bottle over in her hands. “I think this is the right way.” She holds the bottle horizontally. “Try reading it again.”

Taking a deep breath, I try again. Reading braille has always been so comforting, so relaxing, requiring minimal mental or physical effort. I remember feeling thrilled to discover a braille sign in Greece, even though I couldn’t read the Greek braille. Since I so rarely had to struggle to read braille, the current situation was unsettling. After examining the first few dots at a painfully slow rate, I finally identified a letter.  

I see it now! Gel de ducha!” Once I figured out the formation of the first letter, the rest was easy. Braille letters consist of dots spaced a certain distance from each other. The braille I have seen in French, Greek, German, and Spanish have all used the same basic shape as English braille. The braille on this bottle of body wash, however, had the dots spaced out so far apart that the dots for a single letter would not all fit on a single fingertip. Why did they do this? Alejandra and I couldn’t figure it out. I read the label a few more times, and my annoyance with the spacing quickly disappeared. How could I be annoyed with the spacing of the dots when I had never before in my life even seen a bottle with braille embossed directly on it. “Oh my God, I can’t believe they actually manufacture these bottles with braille labels! I’ve never seen anything like it in America or anywhere! How cool that they do this in Spain!”

“Of course we have braille labels,” said Alejandra’s father who was in the kitchen with us. “Everyone in Spain is blind.”

He had purchased it at the nearby shopping center, along with some other random groceries. It occurred to me that other products might have braille labels on them, too. I asked Ale and her father, and they started looking through the kitchen. Cleaning supplies? no braille. Food products? No braille. Other shower products? No braille. The only other braille labels appeared on some of the prescription medications I read these labels, and the braille on them was easy to read.  How fascinating that some labels contained braille and others did not. Would grocery stores here randomly supply products with braille labels?


That afternoon, Ale and I met up with Lucia and her cousin for lunch and ice cream at a shopping center in Madrid. We told Lucia and her cousin about our morning adventures with braille and current mission to hunt for braille at the mall. We circled various sections, but we only found one braille labels. In the shower section, a company called Sanex embossed their brand name in braille for their shampoos and body washes. Unlike the one we had discovered that morning, these bottles did not state in braille whether they were shampoo or body wash. How did the manufacturers decide what to braille and what not to braille? Why did braille labels appear on shower products and not other household supplies? Did he government subsidize the cost of adding braille labels to mainstream consumer products? Spain has a very strong national organization for the blind known as ONCE. Ale has a friend who works for ONCE, so she will ask him. We will also try to visit their headquarters in Madrid if we have time.

Due to ONCE, Spain has the lowest unemployment rate for blind individuals. While the fact that many blind people work is definitely great, the downside is that the majority of them all work for ONCE. The government gave ONCE a monopoly over the national lottery. On many of the street corners in Madrid and Barcelona you can find little booths with ONCE employees selling lottery tickets.  Miriam and I checked out one of these booths where a middle-aged guy was selling lottery tickets. He said that he lived found the work boring but appreciated having a job in the bad economy. ONCE employs people who have other disabilities, and this man had a traumatic brain injury.

ONCE has a museum for the blind in Madrid, and Alejandra, Miriam, and I visited the museum. After exploring the museum for over an hour, I declared it my favorite museum in the world.  Spread across several rooms of the third floor of ONCE’s headquarters in Madrid stood tables with tactile models of famous monuments. One station contained the stone sculptures of a famous fountain in Madrid. I felt the intricate designs on the chariot whereupon sat a woman from Greek or Roman mythology who was being pulled by lions. Alejandra described the monuments and explained their history as I moved from station to station. “This is the Royal Palace. We’ll go there when you get back from Barcelona.” The model palace contained everything from the gardens to the towers, with braille labels along the side. The 3D model palace was spectacular. I could not remember ever studying a miniature palace before. 

“This is amazing!” I told Alejandra. “I wish they did this for international monuments, too! This is really so helpful, it gives one a good sense of what the real thing is like.”

 “We can go to the international section,” answered answered  Alejandra.

“What?! They have that here?” Past the models of Spanish monuments were a dozen or so international monuments. I eagerly examined the Roman Colosseum, the Parthenon from Greece, the Kremlin… Despite hearing about these structures all my life, I found myself discovering them all over again. You know that so-called leaning tower of Pisa? I always imagined that it “really” leaned, but the model showed it leaning only slightly. The image in my mind had been of a tower on the verge of toppling over, not something with a subtle tilt! When I touched the Eiffel Tower, I was utterly shocked. How did I go 24 years without knowing what the Eiffel Tower looked like? I knew its general shape, but that was about it. At the museum for the blind in Madrid, I discovered for the first time that the Eiffel Tower is hollow in the center, with iron arches on its four-sided base, and iron supports crossing diagonally through the space between its layers. The structure resembled a wedding cake in a way. “I want to go to Paris,” I told Alejandra. I was in awe of the tower, the beautiful tactile model, and the amazing accomplishments of ONCE.

“I want you to see this one.” Alejandra moved to a new table. “I’m not going to tell you what it is, though.” 

“OK, I’ll read the braille plaque.”

“That’s cheating! I want you to figure it out!” I skipped the plaque and approached the monument. 

I recognized it immediately. “Oh! The statute of Liberty! They have this, too!? I love this place!” The next station held the Taj Mahal with its smooth stone pillars and circular structures. Beautiful.  

We need more museums like this, and I don’t even think we have a single one in the U.S. Constructing detailed tactile models like the ones in ONCE’s museum is the best way to give blind people access to valuable cultural information. People should know what the Eiffel Tower looks like how far Pisa’s tower leans, or what exactly people are referring to when they say Taj Mahal. 

Posted by: habentravels | August 10, 2012

A day in Toledo

In my last post I mentioned that we would visit the city of Toledo. Really, though, we went to visit Lucia. When Lucia heard from Alejandra that I would be visiting Spain, she urged Alejandra to bring us down for a visit. Toledo is Lucia’s city. It is a cultural wonder that has combined the histories of Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. The recent exchange program from Mobility International USA (MIUSA) had planned to visit the city, but could not make it in the end. Lucia was one of the Spanish hosts for MIUSA’s program in Spain, and she was very disappointed not to be able to show them her city. Two months later, she jumped at teh opportunity to share her city wiiith two American travelers: Miriam and I. 

Although our visit to Toledo was not a MIUSA sponsored trip, Lucia passionately believes in accessible travel. In the taxi ride from the train station to Toledo’s center, she told us spent a whole day going around teh city choosing the most accessible sites for us to visit.Her passion for accessible travel blew me away–finding acessible sites for two blind women and two wheelchair users in a very, very old town must have been difficult. 

 As soon as we entered the Transito Synagogue, Lucia lead me to tactile map of the synagogue. Oh my God, and the map had braille! Spanish braille, yes, but still braille! I read the labels out loud and Alejandra and Lucia translated it into English. Next came a display of the synagogue’s roof, with tactile displays of the stars along the ceiling. Along the East Wall was an elegant tapestries with carvings of castles, Hebrew scripture, and other symbols. People pray facing this wall, and Lucia showed us a tactile display for us to touch. Walking around the synagogue, we came across a giant Torah. This, however, was only for the eyes to see and not the hands to touch. Our guide explained that people aren’t’ allowed to touch the pages of the Torah. Turning to Miriam, fluent in both Spanish and Jewish culture, I ask, “Are people not allowed to touch the pages of all Torahs or just special ones like this one?”

“It’s all Torahs. There are little page-turning devices you use,” Miriam says.

I think about this for a bit. “Miriam, what if someone wants to read a Torah in braille?!”

Toledo has narrow stone streets with a maze-like design that woul have left us lost if it were not for Lucia. Some of the streets were steep, too, but Ale’s power chair successfully managed. After another delicious lunch, we visited the Cathedral of Toledo.  Several centuries ago, the Virgin Mary came down from Heaven to pay a visit to Toledo. Inside this cathedral is the rock Mary stood on as she delivered her message to Toledo. Visitors to the Cathedral are expected to touch the stone and say, “This is a holy place.”  

 Lucia next guided us to the Fortress of Alcazar. The structure served as many things over the years, but it is currently a library and museum. We rode the elevator tot he top floor and, eating ice cream, enjoyed the great view. Nine years ago Lucia left the library and experienced a traffic accident. Since that time she had never stepped foot in the library, until today. “This is a very special place for me, ” she told me, “and I wanted to show it to you.” I felt so touched, honored, and and tied to her in a special way. I made a new friend in Toledo, and she will be coming up to Madrid the next few days to hang out with Alejandra, Miriam, and I.

Posted by: habentravels | August 8, 2012

Day One in Spain

“You have my passport, right?” The woman guiding me towards custom seemed annoyed with my question. Despite my serious tone and an attempt to slow her down, she continued to walk towards customs at a brsk pace. A few seconds later she finally acknowledges my question. I only understood two words in her response, but they were enough to alert me to potential danger. “Habla espanol.” I would needd to get through Madrid’s airport with the assistance of an airport attendant who did not speak any English.. But there ws something even more important than a guide that I needed to get through that airport, which, of course, was my missing passport.Only The wonderful flight attendants from Iberian Airlines had introduced me to an airport attendant who would guide me to baggage claim. A tall man who spoke good English with a Spanish accent lead me to customs, asked for my passport, showed it to the guy at customs, and then for some strange reason told me to wait at a seat while he went to speak with some other airport staff. I didn’t waste anytime wondering why he decided not to take me through customs because I was trying to keep track of his tall frame and orange vest as he chatted with a small group ten feet away. I wanted my passport back and didn’t know whether it remained in the hands of the customs official or the tall one. Given the quite normal practice of airport staff to ask to see the passports of passengers, I felt more alert than worried. So when the tall guy told me to go through customs with another woman and failed to hand me my passport, I knew I needed to convince this woman to return that passport to its rightful owner. Unfortunatley, she could not speak English.

Why would a deafblind woman travel on her own to a foreign country? The first time I read about a deafblind woman traveling around the world on hr own, I asked myself that question. Reading about Christine Roscheart’s travels in Africa and Asia inspired me to embark on my own adventures. I know from my previous travel experiences that travel isn’t about sightseeing. I travel to learn about other cultures by forming new friendships in new places. By exploring new parts of the world, I discover things about the world and myself that allow me to return home a better person. for people traveling with a disability, it helps to find a person in the host country to facilitate access to teh country. When I decided to go travel to Spain several months ago, I contacted several disability organizations in Spain and the US looking for someone who could help me during my visit. Not surprisingly, the most helpful organization was Mobility International USA. The program coordinator recommended several people in Madrid, one of whom became a good friend and country host.  The more I spoke with Alejandra in the weeks leading up to my visit, the more I realized she was beyond the perfect host. Fluent in both English and Spanish, she had twice served as the translator for MIUSA’s New York/Madrid exchange program. I could hardly believe that I would be exploring Spain with someone who had two years of experience guiding Americans with disabilities through Spanish culure. Alejandra and her father not only opened their home to me, a complete stranger, but even offered to meet me at the airport. Alejandra warned me that many of the staff at the airport could not speak English, but I assured her I would be fine. One of the reasons I chose to travel to Spain and not some other country in was because if I ever found myself in a situation where I needed assistance from someone who did not speak English, I could at least communicate with my 3-years-worth of high school Spanish.

When I realized the woman guiding me through Madrid’s airport did not speak English, I quickly sifted through my fading Spanish vocabulary to communicate my urgent question. “Tienes mi passaporte?” She immediatley spun around and yelled something to the tall one. When I heard her utter the word “passaporte,” I felt so relieved even though I hadn’t yet  seen my precious passport. She understood me! My high school Spanish still works! I saw the tall one hand something over to teh woman and she immediatley headed for customs again. I pointed at the little document and asked in Spanish, “My name is Haben. Is that passport for Haben?” I watched her open it up and confirm that indeed it was mine. Haleluja! The rest of the trip through the airport went smoothly. How would I handle that situation in a country where I could not speak the native language at all? If this Spanish adventure goes well, I may have to test my communication skills in a country where the native language is neither Spanish nor English.

Alejandra and her father are wonderful people. Alejandra and I chat away in English, while with her father we alternate between her translating and he and I try using what little English and Spanish we know. We talked about Spanish culture over a delicious meal prepared for us by Alejandra’s father. Spanish food is quite different from Mexican food. It uses a lot of garlic and often includes seafood. They also tell me that unlike most big cities, Madrid is very welcoming to tourists and Spaniards will go out of their way to make outsiders feel welcome. My first-hand experience of Spanish hospitality still amazes me, though. I feel so lucky to be staying in their beautiful apartment that happens to be right by the metro.

After lunch, which occurred at the traditional Spanish lunch time of 2:30 PM rather than around noon, Alejandra and I met up with one of my friends from Boston who had been living in Madrid for teh summer. The three of us explored one of Madrid’s beautiful city parks. The park contained numerous gardens, ponds, playgrounds, and countless statutes. The statute of the fallen angel Lucifer is teh world’s only monument for the devil, and it stands in this park. We grabbed dinner outside the Crystal Palace. Tomorrow the three of us will explore Toledo, a historic city just outside Madrid.

Posted by: habentravels | April 8, 2010

American Kids in Africa: The Incredible Bullfight

While a brilliant sun sparkles over the spectacular city of Asmara, Eritrea, my sister and I are lounging in the semi-dark living room of my grandmother’s house whining to whoever wanted to hear, “There’s nothing to do!” A dazzling array of shops and cafes line the manicured avenues of downtown Asmara. Historic cathedrals built by the Italians, grand mosques constructed by the Ottomans, and palm-lined city parks offer weeks of entertainment for the cultured adult tourist. For two American girls brought up on Nickelodeon and Nintendo, “culture” would never do. So, again, we are bored. Yohana leans against the arm of the couch fiddling with the useless remote control while I, leaning against the other arm, wrack my big brain for ways to entertain ourselves. Since my grandmother and her daughters, my mother and aunts, are by the courtyard in the kitchen, playing with the rooster was currently not an option. One of my aunts has a wedding in a week, and they are all busily chopping garlic and onions in preparation for the million and one dishes they would have to make. Whatever I decide to do, I would have to be careful not to let them see me. Not only would I be at risk of getting in trouble—they seem to think everything we kids thought fun counts as “trouble”—but, even worse, they might force me to help with the cooking. Armed with my twelve-year-old wisdom, I made sure my plans for entertainment would keep me far away from the kitchen.

What could we do? What could we do? The lack of familiar options seriously bugs me. In America I could think of a thousand fun things to do, but here… I turn to Ramon and ask him for ideas. Eritrean-born, I figure he would be able to come up with some kind of exciting diversion. Friendly, smart, and the same age as Yohana, Ramon easily fit into many of our adventures.

“I don’t know,” he says, sounding as frustrated and bored as I am.

“Monkey!” I swear, using “monkey” to make it adult-proof.

“Tartar sauce!” Yohana punches a couch pillow.

“Sheeeet!” wails Ramon in his Eritrean accent. His accent totally botches the “i” sound into a prolonged “ee” that makes all of us laugh. Ramon, like all Eritreans, learned how to swear in English way before he learned most other English words. When a hero or heroine swears in a movie, you know what they mean regardless of what language they’re speaking. Ramon could swear without mispronunciations, but he botches them anyways just to get us to laugh. It totally works, and I feel a surge of hope that we would indeed find something fun and exciting to do that day.

My mind slips back into creative mode, carefully assessing all the possibilities. Thinking about the ways I could avoid cooking for the wedding reminds me of the bull in the backyard. My uncle and his friends had brought the bull there the day before, and there it would stand for a few more days until it eventually joined the pots of garlic and onion.

“Hey!” I call out, startling Yohana and Ramon. “We could go see the bull! I mean, all the cartoons say cows don’t like red, so we should find out if it’s true or not. It’ll be like a scientific experiment! And if mommy says anything, we’ll just tell her it’s educational.”

“What, what?” Ramon isn’t following my English. I have to clarify.

I stand up and point to the other side of the room, “Over there, bull,” I say in broken Tigrinya. I point to where I am standing, “Me, here.” I grab a sweater off the couch and wave it energetically, “Torro! Torro!”

“Aha! Yes!” Ramon leaps off his chair and heads for the door.

“Wait!” I call after him. “We need something red!” Just to make sure he understands, I point to the sweater and say the Tigrinya word for red.

“Oh, OK, where can we get something red?” asks Ramon.

“In the bedroom!” I race out into the hall and turn left into our bedroom. Ramon and Yohana are close behind. The luggage my sister and I share is kept under the twin bed, so I have to lift up the bed a little to pull it out. Within minutes of searching I rise victorious with a shirt completely red except for some writing on the front.

“That’s my shirt!” Yohana protests.

“I know, but we’re just going to hold it. It’ll be fine.” She crosses her arms and says nothing, and I proceed with the plan. We leave the bedroom, cross the hall, and enter another bedroom. The bull is tied up to a tree about four feet beyond the bedroom wall, which places him almost right under the bedroom window. Carefully, Ramon and I pull open the window and peak over the edge. I see a big dark form that must be the bull.

“He’s tied up, right?” Someone had told me earlier that the bull was tied up, but for safety’s sake I wanted further verification.

“Yes,” says Ramon. “So, are you going to do it?” Beneath his question I hear another one: So, are you brave?

I hesitate. I desperately want to prove my bravery, but my deceptive little stomach is churning with fear. He’s tied up, I remind myself. My uncles would not bring a bull to our yard that could hurt one of us, right? The bull had to be sufficiently tied up. I would not let fear stop me from having fun, or get in the way of scientific discovery. Cartoons are known to spread lies, so it is absolutely vital that I determine whether bulls really hate red. Bolstered by this noble cause, I hang the red shirt out the window, shake it, and run.

Nothing happens.

I try it again, this time holding it out longer and shaking it hard to get the bull’s attention.

Nothing happens.

I feel furious, insulted, and desperate to get a reaction out of the bull. “We have to go outside,” I tell Ramon and Yohana. Ramon nods his head and goes towards the door.

“No!” Yohana intercepts him and blocks the door. “You can’t! It’s not safe!” She is almost shouting at us, not quite, but almost.

“Yohana, don’t worry,” I assure her. “He’s tied up, he can’t do anything.”

“Yes he can! We’re going to get killed!” Her fear, however hysterical, starts spreading around the room. What if the bull gets so mad he breaks the ropes binding him and goes charging after us? What if I misjudge the length of his ropes and inadvertently get too close? Yohana’s frantic wails were beginning to sound like wise advice.

Despite my rising fear and sense of caution, I desperately needed to counteract the overwhelming sense of boredom we had experienced all afternoon. Ramon was counting on me to do this, and if I failed him he would undoubtedly call me all the nasty Tigrinya variations on the word coward. Yohana saw the issue only in terms of safety, but there was so much more at stake. My precious pride was on the line, having been humiliated by the bull in my attempts to get a reaction out of him. How dare he not even moo! Nothing bugs me more than when a person deliberately ignores me, and when a bull ignores me, that’s going too far.

Unwilling to give up my plan entirely, I offer up a compromise. “OK, how about this: you stay in here and watch us through the window. If anything happens, you can be the heroine and call for help. Me and Ramon will go outside, but we’ll be careful, I promise.”

She just stares.

“Yohana, please,” Ramon pleads, and still not saying a word, she stomps away from the door and lets us pass.

Running outside and around the house, we skid to a stop at the corner of the house right before the bull. Stepping around that corner would bring us right in the bull’s line of vision. In fact, taking that step would bring us within about six feet of the bull. Thinking about Yohana’s warning, six feet seemed too close.

I shove the bright red shirt into Ramon’s arms. “Here, you first!”

“Hey!” Stunned, he jumps back about three feet, then leaps at me with the shirt. “No, you first!”

“No you!” I try to give it back to him, but he stays well out of my reach. I suddenly realize that Yohana could hear us through the window, so I had to make up my mind: to be a coward or not to be a coward?

Taking just one step forward, I find myself face to face with the bull. Just six feet ahead of me stood the large dark form of the bull. A mere blur, but I remind myself that it is indeed a very dangerous blur. Yohana had described the bull, but somehow I am still not entirely convinced of its presence. To fully know its shape and size I would need to go right up and touch it. Only fear prohibited me from doing so. My curiosity would have to make do with the next best option: hearing a mighty moo or feeling the ground shake beneath its movements. To indulge this intense curiosity, I begin my first stint as a bullfighter.

I raise the red shirt and shake it between my two hands. Cartoon scenes of Speedy Gonzalez and others flash through my mind as I beg the bull to react. I try waving the red shirt to the side of me, in front of me, above me.

“He’s not doing anything!” I complain to Ramon. Would it be possible that the bull is blind? Ramon snatches the red shirt and takes my place in front of the bull.

“Torro!” Ramon shouts. I shiver with horror. He used The Word! Ramon jumps up in front of the bull waving the red shirt in the air. “Torro! Torro! Torro!” All the jumping and floor scraping starts looking like a wild dance, a dance I feel certain will finally elicit a response from the stubbornly silent bull.

“RAMON!!” a woman’s voice yells. Hearing the warning in her tone, we don’t even wait to find out who it is. We turn and run back into the house, back into our private world far away from the women cooking in the kitchen. Yohana rushes out of the bedroom to greet us and we retell the story over and over to ourselves, comparing all three perspectives. Ramon earns top marks for his daring performance, and Yohana decides it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The excitement of the encounter—our titillating moments of courage and cowardice—temporarily wash away the sense of boredom. Though we failed to gain the bull’s recognition, we succeeded in finally creating the type of Third World entertainment we craved.

Posted by: habentravels | March 21, 2010

Maxine Sneaks into an Alaskan Wedding

If Maxine knew what I was writing, she’d probably protest and say, “No, the wedding snuck up on me! I was just minding my own business!” Right. When you combine intelligence and a drama queen all in one dog, there’s no way such a dog ends up in the spotlight “accidentally.” That’s why I strongly suspect she planned the whole thing up herself.

Quite a few weddings in Juneau, Alaska revolve around the city’s icy treasure: the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier. In summer, some couples will even take a helicopter up to the top where they celebrate their union against a backdrop of endless ice. There has even been a piano flown up there—recorded music just wouldn’t do for a wedding.

It was winter, though, so this particular wedding took place at the Mendenhall Visitor Center. Located just across from the glacier, it was the perfect compromise: a warm ornate man-made structure from whose large windows one can safely view nature’s unruly creations. The constant movement of the glacier makes it dangerous, for now and then a huge chunk of ice will fall and smash anything in its way. Between the visitor center and the glacier is a lake peppered with huge icebergs that have fallen off the glacier at one point or another. During winters when the lake is frozen you can walk right up to these icebergs. If feeling a little crazy, you could walk up to the glacier, too. When you’re that close, you can hear the loud clicking sound of the ice constantly shifting, or beginning a deadly countdown. 3…2…1…

I was glad to be inside the warm visitor center. The main room was mostly full when we arrived. Three rows of seats spread out in semi-circles around the small stage, across from which stood the large windows overlooking the lake and glacier. Not wanting to be in the front row, Gordon and I found ourselves seats in the second row. Maxine also took her seat after some prodding, only her place was not on an actually chair, but tucked away beneath mine. Her head and front paws stuck out a little into the aisle, but there would still be plenty of room for other guests to pass without tripping over her.

When the ceremony finally began, Gordon entertained us by silently signing his commentary for the ceremony. “The groom’s mumbling through his vows!…I knew that guy in high school…He should take her last name, it sounds better…OK, they’re exchanging rings.” Gordon is quiet now, and I imagine the bride and groom walking offstage through the little door on the right with their train of bridesmaids and best men following close behind.

I glance to my left for no particular reason and am startled to see the newly wedded couple walking towards us. Instead of simply going from the stage to the door on the right, they were taking a de tour through the aisle right in front of the second row of seats. I checked Maxine to make sure she was sufficiently tucked under my chair and was horrified to find her stretched out across two thirds of the aisle. My guide dog was trying to stop a wedding!

“No one told me they were going to parade through here!” I sign to Gordon.

“No one told me either!” he responds.

Maxine was too comfortable for me to do anything quick: I would have to either interrupt the couple’s parade so that I could move her out of the way, or I could just let them step over her. Before I could even decide, they were passing right in front of us. Up went the bride’s high-heeled foot in an extra extra large step, and then down it went on the other side of the napping dog. Maxine seemed completely indifferent to her surroundings, and the whole thing started to actually seem funny. Just as I was beginning to relax, another fancily dressed couple came parading down the aisle. Up went the bridesmaid’s high-heeled shoe in an extra large step over the smug dog. People up and down the aisle were smiling and Gordon and I were struggling to suppress laughter. Did Maxine stretch out on purpose? I decided to wake her up and move her, but another couple came parading by. Up went another high-heeled foot in a long step over the little dog. Keeping myself from laughing was getting pretty hard. Maxine ought to be smart enough to move when she saw people coming, so I had a feeling the little dog was enjoying the wedding a little too much.

Gordon and I stepped outside after the ceremony. With an hour until the reception, we decided to explore a little path off to the left of the front door. The path led to a viewing point that looked out on the lake and glacier. Several people were skating on the frozen lake, and others were walking their dogs.

“Excuse me; can I take your picture?” The wedding photographer was out on the viewing point, too, so we posed for him with the lake and glacier behind us. Maxine, of course, was right in the center of the photo. As the wedding photographer takes Maxine’s photo, the bride and groom come out to the viewing point. It was as if where ever Maxine went, they went. Gordon and I immediately left the viewing point so they could have their photos, but again they all had to pass by Miss Maxine.

The little shepherd hadn’t done anything particularly wrong when she made herself comfortable on the floor, and she did not do anything to draw the photographer’s attention. All of this occurred by Maxine being herself. Her personality is such that she absolutely loves attention, much more than the average dog. So even though she did not do anything “wrong,” I strongly suspect that she stretched herself out on the floor in hopes of earning herself more attention. Whether she planned it or not, she certainly attained the attention she loves.

Posted by: habentravels | March 12, 2010

Peanut Butter and Blindness

“Can blind people make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?” I posed this question to my seven-year-old cousin as matter-of-factly as I could. Considering the ridiculousness of the question, sounding serious proved to be pretty hard. My little cousin, Yafet, had just finished demanding that I make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now if he had asked me politely, maybe I would have consented. What you need to know about Yafet is that he is an extremely smart kid. So smart, in fact, that he has discovered that he can get away with being rude to my sister and me by sweetly telling our parents, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just a kid, I didn’t know.” They fall for it every single time. Whenever he comes to our house he swiftly touches one of our favorite games or toys and instantly destroys it. “Oops! I’m just a kid, I didn’t know.” This evening, for instance, he mercilessly tore up one of my card decks—cards I had carefully brailled myself.


“Don’t let Yafet see you,” my mom warns me as I head over to the kitchen to make a sandwich for my lunch the next day. It was the last day of Thanksgiving weekend and my mom and her sisters were socializing in the living room, while three of my young cousins run around the house. Yafet reliably demands to have whatever my sister and I have, regardless of whether he actually wants it or not. This evening he had already eaten lasagna and two slices of chocolate cake. Well, the official count was two slices. Several times he silently disappeared into the kitchen, so who knows how much he really ate.

I slipped into the kitchen unnoticed and brought out all the ingredients for a PB&J. As I worked, I could hear Yafet and his cousins shrieking in the next room. Every game they played involved running around shrieking—in addition to destroying things.

While spreading the peanut butter on a slice of bread, Yafet popped out of nowhere. His appearance was so sudden, it was like a horror movie. His head didn’t go much higher than the kitchen counter, but that didn’t make it any less threatening. “What are you doing?” he asks, though he could clearly see what I was doing.

“Making a PB&J,” I mumble. “It’s for my lunch tomorrow.”

“Oh,” he says.

He doesn’t say anything else, and I begin to relax a bit. So he’s finally starting to be reasonable by not asking for food he doesn’t need. Finished with the peanut butter, I start spreading the jam.

“Make me one,” he insists. After I don’t say anything, he decides to explain his case. “You know, if you don’t make me one I’m just going to tell Auntie Saba on you. She’s going to tell you to make me one, so you better make me one.” The worst thing about being blackmailed by a seven-year-old is that they’re almost always right when they claim that the grown-ups will take their side. Auntie Saba just might insist that I make him one, especially if he asks her sweetly and pretends to be very hungry. She also might do it to create some peace and quiet in the house—a kid chewing is quieter than a kid running around the house shrieking. So if I wanted to avoid playing personal chef for Yafet, I had to think fast.

“Yafet,” I said patiently. “Can blind people make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?”

He thinks for a second, and then gives his answer, “No.”

“Yafet,” I continue, keeping all emotion from my voice. “Am I blind?”

“Yes,” he says, without even thinking about it this time.

“Well, then, if blind people can’t make PB&Js and I am blind, then I guess I can’t make you one, right?” Yafet just stands there without a word while I neatly put the two pieces of bread together. As I start closing the jars and putting them away, he turns and runs out of the kitchen. From the next room I hear his frantic wails, “AUNTIE SABA! Haben said…Haben won’t…”

A minute later, Yafet runs back into the kitchen all breathless. “Haben,” he says sternly, “Auntie Saba says you have to make me a sandwich.”

“But you said blind people can’t make sandwiches. So how can I make you a sandwich?”

“But I saw you make one!” he bellows.

“Oh?” In my mind, I decide that changing Yafet’s attitude towards blindness would be worth making him a sandwich. He understood that I, as his cousin, am completely capable of making him a sandwich. For seven years he’s been coming to my house and watching me do a million different things. Still, like all other kids, movies and books have taught him that blind people can’t do anything. For some reason or another, he had decided to ignore his own personal experiences with me in favor of believing the all-knowing TV. After all, he had just now seen me make a sandwich! I would give him one last chance, though. If he could get over the old stereotypes and acknowledge that blind people can make sandwiches, I would agree to make him one. “So you saw me make a sandwich? That’s interesting. Now let’s consider that for a second. Does that mean that blind people can make sandwiches?”

He actually takes a bit longer to think about it, and I begin to hope that he’ll start putting two and two together. But then he gives me the same old answer, “No.”

“I can’t make you a sandwich, then, sorry.” Yafet stomps his foot and runs out of the kitchen. Oh well. Some ideas are harder to learn than others.

Posted by: habentravels | February 27, 2010

American Kids in Africa: Fighting Boredom with Chickens

Traveling is usually fun, but after the first two weeks there tends to come a day when you feel utterly incapable of entertaining yourself. I was twelve-years-old and bored out of my mind after one month in Eritrea. It’s hard to get bored in Eritrea with so many people and so many things to do. My grandmother’s house, where I was staying, had about ten people staying there at the time. That’s ten different people this twelve-year-old could turn to for entertainment. I would urge my uncles to teach me a new song on the piano, and then practice it for hours. Sometimes I would take this little toy piano to the road in front of our house so that I could teach the songs I learned to the neighborhood kids. My sister Yohana and I spent many hours playing with the neighborhood kids. We would skip rope, play hand games, or, at night, play hide and seek. I thought I knew the rules of hide and seek, but there was something different about their version. First it seemed like the game was limited to the road in front of my grandmother’s house, but depending on who was Seeker, the kids would sometimes run around the corner and hide at the next block. My sister and I just went with the flow, not really sure why the rules changed so much. When we played hand games with them, we did not entirely understand the songs, either. We understood the language, Tigrinya, well enough. The kids had to slow down when they talked to us to make sure we understood, but we communicated just fine. The problem with the hand games was that they were not all in Tigrinya. I knew this for a fact because one of the games involved a wacky English rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” sung while spinning in circles in the middle of summer. Maybe the kids didn’t understand the songs they sang, either.

After a month of all this, we found ourselves battling boredom. Nothing seems new and exciting. We’d seen it all, we’d done it all. In other words, we missed TV.

Now it happens that my grandmother actually does have a TV, but it does not offer any of the cartoons we love. After desperately flipping through the limited number of channels at various times of the day, we discover that for one hour each day there is a children’s program on one of them. Now, this would be fine except for one big problem: it isn’t cartoons. Not only is it an educational program, but it’s in Arabic! English would have been ideal, but Tigrinya would have been OK, too. Of all things, why Arabic? The main language in Eritrea is Tigrinya, so that is what everyone around us speaks. On the TV, a group of kids start singing a familiar tune with an Arabic twist. It’s none other than the Alphabet Song. Annoyed, we turn off the TV and leave the room.

Between the main house and the two outer buildings is a large courtyard with trees and shrubs. A few chickens usually roam the yard, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on whether my grandmother felt like making a chicken stew. She usually has the same hen for a good long time that produces eggs for us, but the roosters would come and go. Earlier that week we had turned to the chickens when boredom first struck. I would start chasing one from one side of the yard, and then my sister would come at it from the other side so we had it cornered. They were fast! Sometimes they’d run, but often they’d just squawk and fly up a few feet. We derived so much entertainment from teasing the chickens mercilessly. My grandmother eventually told us that chasing the hens caused them to produce fewer eggs. I felt so guilty when I heard that. Learning that a supposedly innocent game actually causes some harm was always a bit of a shock. My sister and I promised our grandmother not to bother the hens anymore.

Unable to chase the hens., we instead scheme up a game involving the rooster. It occurs to us that if anyone so much as looks out a window or steps out into the courtyard, they would definitely see my sister and me chasing the rooster. So with all the maturity we could muster, we decide not to chase the rooster. Well, not exactly—our methods of entertainment just became a bit more sophisticated

Yohana and I stand outside leaning against the wall that runs by the entrance to the kitchen. Very, very casually—as if innocent of ulterior motives—we chat about cartoons, movies, and the neighborhood kids. Meanwhile, the rooster pecks around about fifteen feet away.

“So, Haben, what show do you think we’d be watching right now if we were back in America?”

“Maybe Nickelodeon is doing a special of Chicken Run,” I answer. Yohana snickers, but then someone comes walking down the hall. “Hey Yohana,” I say hastily, “do you think it’s going to rain?”

She looks up at the sky and takes her time deciding. My aunt Senu steps out just as Yohana makes up her mind about the weather, “Oh, yes, it definitely is going to rain. You know how it is here, pouring rain every single afternoon.”

Senu walks past us towards one of the outer buildings, but then stops suddenly. “Of course, this is the rainy season,” she says defensively. We learned long ago that the easiest way to get Senu worked up is to make the smallest criticism of her country, even if it is only a comment on the *interesting* way they do hamburgers, or, in this case, the weather. “The rain is good for the land,” she goes on, “it keeps down the dust.”

“Yeah, and turns it to mud,” I mutter.

“Anyways, so what are you two doing standing there?” she demands.

“Nothing!” We give her our biggest smiles.

“Uhu, I’ll be watching you.” And with that she turns and starts heading for the outer building.

“Hey Senu, I like your shirt!” Yohana calls, her tongue coated with sugar.

“Yeah! It’s really nice!” I try to sound sincere, but fail miserably. Senu being Senu, she would not buy it for a second.

“Troublemakers,” she mutters in Tigrinya. The literal meaning of the word would be “troublemakers,” but its common use has an affectionate ring to it.

When she’s gone, I whisper, “She has no idea!”

“I know!” Yohana giggles. “Hey, here he comes!” Our little friend the rooster is finally pecking his way towards our side of the yard. As planned, Yohana and I continue chatting by the wall, purposely facing each other so that Mr. Rooster would not suspect a thing.

“So, you think hens and roosters taste the same?” I venture. I know I have to keep my voice calm, but any human could tell I was suppressing a laugh. I prayed the rooster couldn’t tell.

“Hmmm,” Yohana mused. “Grandma usually takes the roosters, so maybe they taste better.”

“Oh yes, roosters would be much better. This one could probably make thirty chicken nuggets. Hey, he’s coming closer. You think he’s volunteering?”

“You think it’s time? Shall we get him?”

“OK, Yohana,” I slowly step away from the wall and edge towards the other side of the rooster. “You block that side, I’ll block this side.” The rooster is still calmly pecking at the ground, oblivious to the trap. We have him surrounded on all four sides. On one side is the wall we had been standing against, the open double-doors to the kitchen at a ninety degree angle to the wall, and Yohana and I stood where his only possible escape would be. We inch forward, slowly closing him in.

“He’s doing it!” says Yohana gleefully. “The stupid rooster is actually following our plan!” Since the rooster cannot walk through a wall or walk past us, he is forced to do what we want him to do. Mr. Rooster struts into the kitchen.

Quickly, we step in after him and close the doors. There is another door leading out of the kitchen, so I quickly step in front of it to prevent him from trying any funny moves. He takes his time pecking at the kitchen floor, probably enjoying the abundance of crumbs.

“Aww, isn’t he sweet?” Yohana says in a mock-cheery voice, “he’s fattening himself up for us!” We laugh the laugh of excited children. The sound reverberates against the walls of the small kitchen. Startled, the rooster looks up.

At last, the moment we had been waiting for: the moment we had worked so hard to create in hopes of casting off that miserable cloud of boredom. The rooster looks up, and in the glass door of the oven sees his own little reflection. We watch bright-eyed as the rooster puffs up, spreads his wings, and declares war on his reflection. “Buck-buck-buck bucka!” It is so loud! The whole house shakes with the rooster’s rage. He flares up and flies at his reflection again. “Buck-buck-buck bucka!” His beak pounds the glass of the oven door, but amazingly it does not break. Yohana and I are doubled over with laughter. We had planned to sneak off down the hall so no one would know how the rooster got there, but the laughter felt so enlivening after so many hours of boredom, we stayed in the kitchen with the rooster: all three of us in hysterics. The two sisters sharing a special moment, treasuring their teamwork, and the stupid rooster raging war on a non-existent rival.

Senu comes running into the kitchen to rescue the oven. The way the rooster attacks it, the glass door is at serious danger of breaking into smithereens. My grandmother told us that she tried to avoid having more than one rooster at a time because they always ended up fighting each other over the hens. So you see, my sister and I were trying to educate the rooster of machismo’s follies. Nonetheless, Senu scolds us. As a result, we decide to take our mirth elsewhere. Finding the living room unoccupied, we settle into the couch to savor the memory.

“That was hilarious!” Yohana starts laughing all over again.

“Next time, we should totally get it videotaped! Maybe Ramon could help us out.”

“Yeah!” Yohana cheers. “And that rooster will totally fall for it again!”

“This is what happens when there’s no TV. If we can’t watch cartoons, we’ll just have to make our own!”


Ten years later, Yohana decides she wants to become a veterinarian.

Posted by: habentravels | January 13, 2010

My First Guide Dog Presentation for Kids

Me and Maxine captivated a classroom of students and teachers at a school here in Juneau, Alaska. All Maxine did to win the admiration of the whole room was to sit quietly on the floor—she even got away with eight yawns! I, on the other hand, needed to actually work to earn the audience’s respect by carefully balancing colorful stories about my life as a law-school-bound college student who was blind and Eritrean, with educational facts about guide dogs. Seven minutes was all I needed to introduce Maxine, myself, and the basics of traveling with a guide dog, but the students fired out so many entertaining questions that we stayed in that room for an additional forty minutes. Perhaps it was rude of me, but some of those questions made me laugh.

Q: Can Maxine go everywhere?

A: Yes, absolutely! Everywhere most people can go, she can go. Restaurants, planes, buses, you name it. There are some exceptions, like someone’s private house, but generally she can go anywhere.

Q: Can she go to the swimming pool?

A: /Laughing./ You mean IN THE POOL??

Q: Yes.

A: /Laughing./ Nooo!

Q: What happens if Maxine goes blind?

A: We take her to the vet a few times a year, so the vet would notice if she develops any eye diseases. If she does, then she will have to stop being a guide dog and would turn into a pet.

Q: But what if she goes blind overnight?

A: That would be interesting! She would probably act confused and bump into things in the morning, so I’d notice that something was wrong and immediately take her to the vet.

Q: Do you ever crash into other people?

A: A few times, but everyone makes mistakes and bumps into things now and then.

Q: Do you have blind friends?

A: Yes. I also have sighted friends, and deaf friends, and hearing friends, and black friends, and white friends.

Q: What would happen if Maxine ate candy?

A: She should not pick up stuff from the floor, and she knows it. Sometimes she does, though, and I correct her. She’s eaten candy before, and she’s still alive…

Answering such creative questions for almost an hour was incredibly fun! I promised myself not to disrespect anyone’s question—no question is stupid, right?—but I really couldn’t help laughing at some of them. The randomness of some of the questions makes me marvel at how the ten-year-old mind works. They were conjuring every bizarre scenario that might befall a guide dog and asking me what in heaven I would do if ever this highly unlikely event were to occur—like what if Maxine goes blind, what if Maxine gets lost, what if you and Maxine get attacked? The air practically sizzled with all those neurons busily constructing imaginative scenarios to throw before my feet, and Maxine’s paws.

In some ways, I delighted in the challenge of showing respect to the uninhibited curiosity of those little kids. Thriving at a Q&A session with a policy of “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” is really an art, a skill one has to fine-tune through practice. If I dare say so, I quite excel at this art.

She squirmed a little and switched positions a bunch; at one point her energetic scratching caused her harness to jingle and made the kids giggle. One student finally braved the question that they had all been dying to ask, “Can I pet Maxine?” When ten sixth graders surrounded the little shepherd to pet various parts of her smooth coat, Maxine just stretched out and sighed like the little princess she was.

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