Spooks And Spies On The African Continent

Have you ever met a spy? Have you ever been mistaken for an agent of a foreign power? If the answer to either question is yes, you probably don’t want to answer the question. My answer, if you must know… is ‘maybe’ 😀

cia feetYears ago, while living on the African continent, in a country that shall remain nameless, I met a man. I was sitting in the lobby of a fabulous hotel when I locked eyes with a dignified-looking man. Why was I there? Would you believe me if I told you that I was out of cash and that fancy hotels are one of the few places you can use a credit card in a third world country?

So there I was, enjoying a drink with a friend, when I first saw this stranger, and he caught my eye because it was evident that we were both of Hispanic descent. Finding another Hispanic in California is an everyday thing, but in Africa, not so much. He was dressed in a suit, and was sitting with other men in suits. One of the men next to him looked a bit like Mr. T, with a gold ring on almost every finger. We smiled at each other, one of us spoke (I no longer remember who), and suddenly we were in deep conversation. My new acquaintance was from Havana, but now living in one of the West African countries. He told me he was a doctor for the military, and had come to town for a conference. We chatted late into the evening, and when we were done, Dr. Cuba (that’s not his real name of course), went outside the hotel with me so I could get a cab. Suddenly, he looked a bit concerned, and when I asked him why, he told me that he wasn’t supposed to go outside the hotel grounds without a bodyguard. Since the country we were in isn’t known for being dangerous, I was a bit puzzled as to why a doctor would need a bodyguard, but I didn’t ask anymore questions. We made plans to meet the next evening for dinner, and I went home.

african kingThe next day, I went back to the fancy hotel, taking my friend (I’ll call her Nina) with me. We sat in the lobby with Dr. Cuba and Mr. T, to have a few drinks. While we were sitting there, a very distinguished African gentleman came by to say “hello”. He gave Nina a smile, and said something about how she should come visit his country. “Who is that?”, I asked Dr. Cuba. He replied, “Oh, that’s the brother of the king of Swaziland. He’s got about 20 wives.” Nina’s ears perked up. She started going on about how she’d love to go visit Swaziland. I had visions of her becoming a harem girl, and I worried how I would ever explain it to the school where she worked and I volunteered.

We moved to the restaurant and talked about family. Dr. Cuba had 2 daughters in Havana, and they were big fans of Haagen-Daas ice cream. “I have it flown in once a week from the Dominican Republic, there’s no place to get it in Cuba.”, he said. Let me tell you, the brother of the king of Swaziland doesn’t impress me much, but having ice cream flown in weekly from another country, that has to cost a fortune! “So, what exactly do you do for the military?” I asked Dr. Cuba. “I can’t tell you. But I promise it’s not illegal or immoral.”, he replied. And then he added, “What about you? How come I never see you alone? You always have a bodyguard.” I laughed. Did he think I was a spy or something?

IceCreamAs I pondered the cost of planes, fuel and ice cream, we were interrupted by Mr. T, who explained that Dr. Cuba was needed elsewhere. The Dr. excused himself from the table and was gone for a long time. When I asked him where he’d been, he replied that he’d been to see the general of the South African military. “He was sick. I gave him a shot.”, said Dr. Cuba. I wasn’t buying it. This is the kind of line James Bond would say to make things sound normal. “I believe you went to see a general,” I replied, “But not because the man was sick.” At that time Dr. Cuba’s country of residence was experiencing political turmoil. There were various factions vying for power, and it was one of those countries where diamonds are illegally obtained, traded or exported. There was a suitcase sitting next to Dr. Cuba, and I began to wonder what was inside it. Secret papers? Instruments of torture? Blood diamonds?

Dr. Cuba asked me what I did at my volunteer job, and I explained that I was creating a computer literacy curriculum, so that teachers and students could learn about computers. “That sounds great.” he said, “If you want to do that in my country, I’ll get you a first class plane ticket and pay you a salary. All you have to do is call me, and it will be waiting for you at the airport.” I was intrigued, but I also wondered if this was a good way to disappear and end up in a body bag somewhere. A few minutes later, several men in suits came up to us and stood in a row. One of the men said “Dr. Cuba, sorry to bother you but I’m on my way to the airport to check you in and I need your passport.” If nothing has alarmed you until now, this should. Regardless of the county, Customs and Immigration tend to be sacred cows that bow to no-one. So hearing that there was a mortal who could bypass airport security lines and walk directly from the tarmac onto the plane… that’s about as impressive as they come.

casper lookingDr. Cuba left shortly afterwards, but he gave me his email address and satellite phone number. The email address was with one of the big free email providers, and his username was “Casper”, followed by some numbers. So, was he a spook (it’s a slang term for spies)? I complained once that he had no excuse for not calling because the satellite phone worked anywhere in the world. He replied that he’d been busy talking to the prince of Oman. You might think he was name dropping, but I think he was probably telling the truth or he would have said the queen of England.

I made this necklace recently, recalling my time in Africa. I call it Serengeti queen. You can find it on my Etsy shop.

I made this necklace recently, recalling my time in Africa. I call it Serengeti queen. You can find it on my Etsy shop.

I never made it to that West African country, though I heard the political situation greatly improved. Eventually, we fell out of touch, so I have no idea where “Casper” is these days. I don’t even know if he’s still alive. Mr. T, for those who weren’t paying attention, was Dr. Cuba’s bodyguard. I hope he has kept Dr. Cuba safe. And I will always wonder what was in that suitcase?!

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My Accidental Journey to Paris, Portugal and Beyond … It’s A Small World After All

ticket passportMost of my life has not been planned, it has simply fallen into place. When I was fresh out of college and living in the San Francisco Bay area, I wanted to visit a friend in Chicago. I called the airline to ask about airfare, and was very disappointed (even shocked), to learn that prices had skyrocketed in the last year since I’d left school. “Well,” I asked the ticket agent, in a tone of annoyance, “How much does it cost to go to Paris?!”

I really had no intention of going to Paris. It was mostly a rhetorical question, because in my mind I was thinking that the airfare to Chicago was so expensive, it felt like I should be getting more for my money. But before I could tell the agent that I wasn’t serious, she said, “Please hold, I’ll connect you to the International desk.” The next thing I knew, I was talking to the International desk, and too embarrassed to tell her that I didn’t really want to go to Paris. I picked some dates figuring I’d say “No, thank you”, once she quoted me the fare. “Well, we’ve got a sale right now,” she said. “If you leave before March 15th, you can fly round-trip for $450.” My jaw dropped open. Really?! For $100 more than the cost of going to Chicago, I could go to Paris! The wheels in my mind began to spin… my college roommate lived in Paris, and France was “next door” to Spain, and a “little way” from Portugal (I’ve learned to read maps since then, but at the time I was kinda clueless). I’d never been across the ocean before, and I’d been planning to take a trip anyway, right? Who cares if it’s Paris instead of Chicago? A couple months later I was on my way!

paris postcard pink
Upon arriving in Paris, I learned that most people didn’t understand me in spite of the fact that I spoke French. I became incredibly self-conscious about speaking, and tried to say as little as possible in public. At the home of my friend Caroline in Paris, we had three-way conversations. She spoke to her boyfriend Esteban (who was actually from Argentina) in French. I spoke to him in Spanish. And when I spoke to Caroline, I spoke English. You’d think it was a comedy of errors, but it actually worked out rather well. I took a couple days to get over my jet lag, visited a few museums, drank incredibly expensive coffee, got in trouble for squeezing produce at the grocery store (apparently that’s just not done in France), and then booked myself a cabin on the train to Portugal.

I’ll never forget my train ride. The trip was 25hrs from Paris to Portugal, and there was only one other person in my cabin. She was an older woman from Toulouse, and she didn’t speak any language other than French! I learned two incredibly important things on that train ride. 1) Non-Parisians are generally very kind people. 2) When traveling alone, you can keep silent and be incredibly bored. Or you can open your mouth at the risk of making a fool of yourself, and you’ll probably have a great time and make friends.

cathedral-toulouseI spoke for hours on end with the lady from Toulouse. She told me about her city, its saints and pilgrimages. I asked her about life in the countryside vs. life in the city. I determined that Parisians aren’t purposefully pretending they don’t understand you. They’re just very impatient and usually can’t be bothered to make an effort if your French is less than perfect. My 4 years of high school French had paid off. I could make myself understood and I could understand. I was happy!

I arrived in Portugal, in the city of Coimbra. It’s a beautiful, historic city, situated along the river and very hilly. It’s not very big, but it’s a college town, so it’s full of life. I was in my early 20s, so I fit right in. And when my hostel kicked me out at midday (they do that so they can clean the rooms undisturbed), I found a big window with a bench-like window sill at the university and I took a nap!

Coimbra004

Mundo dos Pequenitos in Coimbra

In Coimbra, I discovered one of the coolest places in Portugal. It is a place that has inspired me, and perhaps even defined me. It’s called Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal of the Little Ones). It is a cross between a theme park and a museum.

There are tiny versions of palaces, castles, monuments and homes. Some of the monuments in the park are traditional buildings or art that you’d find around the world. African statues, Asian palaces, etc. But they aren’t there because someone was trying to copy Disneyland. They are there as reminders of all the lands that the Portuguese explored and conquered.

Mundo dos Pequenos in Coimbra, Portugal

Mundo dos Pequenitos in Coimbra, Portugal

Coimbra002-light

Mundo dos Pequenitos
in Coimbra, Portugal

At the entrance to the park there is a map of the world, with the routes of all the Portuguese explorers… Magellan, Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, and others. Above it there is a phrase. It reads, “And if there were more world, we would go there.” I was in such awe of those men and that phrase. The only reason they hadn’t done/seen more of the world was because they’d seen all of it. I believe it is the ultimate embodiment of “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”

That phrase has affected me profoundly. Over the years it became my goal in life, to keep seeing and exploring the world until I was “done”. Until there was no world left to explore.

On a subtler note, this little theme park gave me my first taste of Africa. Later on, in Lisbon, I’d discover Moroccan art, which would become a lifelong favorite.

Tribal Dance Necklace Click here to view on my Etsy Shop

Tribal Dance Necklace
Click here to view on my Etsy Shop

Though it certainly wasn’t Disneyland, Portugal dos Pequenitos taught me that It’s A Small World After All, and just like those explorers, all I had to do was… Go there!

P.S. I’m not done writing about Portugal, but I’ll leave it for another day. Meanwhile, feel free to sing a happy tune. 😀

Cobblestone Alleys and ‘Big Sis’ Adventures with Portuguese Teens

Hostel Balcony Terrace

Hostel Balcony Terrace

After my accidental trip to Paris, and my cultural immersion on a train where I was forced to speak only French, I ended up at Portugal dos Pequenitos, a theme park/museum for kids (see previous post). I was on my first international journey and I was alone, something many people and most women would never think of doing. But little did I know that through my first solo adventure travels, I would discover a land forgotten by time, and develop a way of travel that would follow me the rest of my life.

Washing along the river Tagus

Washing along the river Tagus

Being in the city of Coimbra was like stepping back in time. Paris is very old-school architecturally, but  the high-speed trains, metro, fashion industry, and proliferation of technology, are constant reminders of the modern age. In Coimbra, many of the streets were still cobblestone, and life moved slower. While walking along the river, I discovered a field with a horse, and a woman washing clothes in the river!

coimbra hostel outside

Coimbra Youth Hostel – Old-Quarter Architecture

Have I mentioned that I learned to speak Portuguese by listening to music? My brother brought Brazilian music home once, when I was a teen, and I found it fascinating. It was like Spanish, but it rolled off the tongue full of “shhhz and zehhhs”, which were terribly sensual. I played that record many times and learned all the lyrics by heart. I figured I could understand about 80% of it. When I got to college I found some dictionaries and books to study it on my own, but I’d never studied it formally, or spoken a word of it to a real Portuguese or Brazilian person. And now here I was, smack in the middle of Portugal, flying by the seat of my pants because few people spoke English and I would have to communicate with them one way or another.

Mundo dos Pequenitos

Mundo dos Pequenitos – Coimbra, Portugal

My first youth hostel ever was in Coimbra. I was out of college and didn’t consider myself “youth”, but people were very friendly and patient with my Portuguese. I met a group of teens on a field trip and they invited me to join them at a bar that evening. I know it might seem weird to hang with teens, but I’d spent my day at a mini-version of Disneyland, so I guess I was working my way to adult company little by little.

Teens on holiday in Coimbra
Additionally, my 25hr train trip from Paris with an older woman who spoke nothing but French as my only company, had taught me that keeping to myself was boring, and I had to be open to new people and opportunities as they arose, in order to have a life filled with adventure and fun. So there I was, being a “big sister” type to the teens. I no longer recall if they were actually drinking alcohol (rules on drinking are different in Europe), or if it was a juice bar of some sort, but there was dancing and much merriment. And I even met a few folks my own age, which was great.

“When traveling alone, you can keep silent and be incredibly bored. Or you can open your mouth at the risk of making a fool of yourself, and you’ll probably have a great time and make friends.” — From My Own Rules of Travel

Coimbra Youth Hostel

Coimbra Youth Hostel

As far as hostels go, I’d learn later that Coimbra’s would be one of my favorites. It was sparse and functional, but bright very cheerful… like sleeping in an Ikea that’s totally old-world on the outside. The beds were comfy and the wooden floors were beautiful, and you could sit on a patio that overlooks the rooftops and cobblestone streets below. It is sheer bliss for a traveler that wants to enjoy architecture and culture, while being frugal with their travel budget.

I left Coimbra with fond memories. By getting out of my comfort zone, I discovered that I was comfortable with young and old people. Whether I roamed quiet cobblestone streets or sat in a busy youth hostel, I could make a social network for myself out of whoever I met. Being a solo traveler is not about being alone, it is about being open to adventure wherever you find it. And if you travel solo, adventure is everywhere!

Renaissance Rose on Copper, click to view on Etsy

Renaissance Rose on Copper, $35
Click here to view on Etsy

P.S. If you missed the beginning of the adventure, see my first post, My Accidental Journey to Paris, Portugal and Beyond … It’s A Small World After All

Stay tuned for my next installment of adventures as I make my way to Lisbon.

ArtsyGenius travels the world in search of beauty, and brings back a tiny piece of it for making jewelry. Here is one of our items inspired by world travels…

Abusing the French, My Fun Cinco De Mayo Tradition

mole and arroz rojo

Chicken Mole, an authentic Mexican dish from Puebla, Mexico. It’s made with chocolate!

Do the French annoy you? Have you ever seen public buildings in Mexico and thought they looked curiously French? Well here’s a little ammo so you can poke your French friends (I have many, by the way) in the ribs.

What? Isn’t Cinco de Mayo about Mexican independence day and drinking margaritas? Nooo…it’s the day of a battle, when a small army of Mexicans kicked French butt!

IMG_0009

Teatro Degollado in Guadalajara, Mexico

Napoleon III invaded Mexico and setup his relative Maximilian as the emperor. The Mexicans weren’t too keen on having their country taken over, so this resulted in the Franco-Mexican war. On the 5th of May in 1862, the Mexican soldiers who were greatly outnumbered and ill-equipped (4,500 Mexicans against 8,000 French), crushed the French army and sent packing!

Although ousted, France left an impression on Mexico. The Degollado theatre in Guadalajara looks a whole lot like the Palais Bourbon in Paris, where the National Assembly meets. And there is a multitude of statues in Mexico that look like they came out of the French revolution. But we need to be extremely grateful to that small Mexican army for 2 things. If the Mexicans had lost, the USA would have snobby French neighbors on its southern border. Second, we’d have lost all the tasty food like chicken mole, flautas, and maybe even Margaritas. And that would be true tragedy!

So go ahead, have a Margarita, and make fun of your French friends like I do! 😀

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Crack, Stones and Mohammed Ali

(This is a reprint of a travel story I wrote a few years ago)

Two weeks ago at Cinequest (San Jose Film Festival), I saw a cute guy standing on the street. He called out to me as I drank my latte. “Hi, I noticed you looking at my chest.” And I was indeed looking at his chest, but only because he had little dangly things on it, and I love jewlery… especially dangly chains and earrings. At this distance I realized that what dangled from his neck were many little bottles with something white inside them, and though I’d never seen any in person, I would have to say the little bottles looked like Crack!

tictacsThe cute guy was handing out little fliers so I took one. “Our film is being screened at 2 O’clock. It’s called Cocaine”, he said to me. Duh! The little bottles were a marketing ploy, and I’d been suckered by it. “They’re just TicTacs”, he added. Well… shows you how innocent I am… can’t tell the difference between Crack and TicTacs! The good part of it is that I can eat them, and I won’t explode or go to jail. It’s a win-win situation really.

alimosqueFunny thing is, the Crack that comes in little bottles isn’t the only kind that can land you in jail, at least depending on the country… why just 2 weeks before I’d been in Egypt, where I saved two stupid tourists from prison and public ridicule. I was touring the Citadel, an old fortress built 400-500 years ago. My mind kept spinning with imagery of eras gone by, and more than once I had to laugh when I was reminded that the largest mosque inside the Citadel was built by Mohammed Ali (can you imagine it… a boxer building a mosque?!!). OK, Mohammed Ali and Mohammed Ali are two different people, but my brain is weird and I can’t help make the connection.

Taking a walk down the road from Mohammed Ali’s mosque, you will come to… another mosque! This one is mostly in ruins, the roof is missing, but the Muslims still like to honor it. For this I give them credit. We took off our shoes and I covered my head, as is the custom of respect inside all mosques. Then I walked around and snapped a few pictures. KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWalking back towards the exit, my heart nearly stopped. Sitting on the steps inside the mosque were a man and a teenage girl. In a country where women are covered neck-to-wrist-to-ankle, and even men don’t show their arms, were two people in t-shirts way too small for them. And why was this so shocking? Well guess what happens when your t-shirt is two small, your pants are too loose, and you sit down while bending forward… bingo! Your shirt rides up, your pants ride down, and you expose the world to something that comes in little bottles…. YOUR CRACK!!!

homerbuttcrackHashish will get you many years in Turkish prison (seen Midnight Express?), but showing crack in a mosque would most likely get you stoned on the spot… and not the kind of stoning you’d enjoy either. I crept up to them quietly, trying not to attract the guard’s attention, and whispered the words I hoped they’d understand. “Be careful when you sit. Your backsides are showing”, I said. The man’s face turned red and his teenager looked blankly. “Thank you”, he said, pulling down his shirt.

There would be no stoning in Egypt that day. No public protest of outrage besides the ones about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet. An international incident had been averted. All because of me!

The moral of our story? It is to take care to keep the innocent, well, innocent. Do not expose your Crack to young children or mosque-goers in Egypt. And if you must carry a little bottle around your neck… fill it with TicTacs.

A public service announcement by,

ME 😛