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I Was There

Sometime in our lives, we have an experience that words are inadequate to describe. I had one on 8/21/17, the day of the Total Eclipse. It was my first. I’d missed every other solar eclipse in my life by being in the wrong place or because of cloudy weather. I wasn’t going to miss this one. But summers are so busy. I traveled through eight states in three weeks. Serendipitously, a library in West Virginia had free eclipse glasses. I picked up a pair.

On my way home, I checked for available campsites at my favorite state park in South Carolina. They were booked. I returned to Florida a week before the eclipse, having made no plans, and my van needed TLC before it could make another trip. Despair was not an option.

 

Not my van, but definitely my sentiment.

 

Fate began to smile. My mechanic made the critical repairs in a timely fashion. When I told him where I was going, he said, “You must really like to drive.”

“No. I just like to go places.”

South Carolina campgrounds were full, but what about Georgia? Only about 100 miles from Orangeburg, Magnolia Springs State Park still had vacancies! Instead of a grueling six hour drive to Orangeburg, I faced a four hour trip to Magnolia Springs, followed by only two hours the next day. I made reservations.

Sunday afternoon, I headed north. With no rangers on duty when I arrived, I chose a campsite and enjoyed my evening at the park. Bright and early Monday morning, I reported to the park office, but the staff wasn’t ready to do business yet. I told them I was going to South Carolina to watch the eclipse. “You registered online?” they said. “Then just go! You can do the paperwork when you come back.”

I drove through fog, optimistic the sky would clear. There was little traffic on US 301 although the interstates were jammed. I arrived in Orangeburg at 9:45 and found a shady parking spot at Edisto Memorial Gardens. With hours to spare, I walked around the Rose Garden and decided this was where I wanted to watch the eclipse. Workers were busy mowing and weeding. I thought, what a great job they had—being paid to experience the eclipse!

When I returned to the parking lot, it was full. I’d been wise to get an early start. Half the cars, it seemed, had Florida tags. I strolled through the Sensory Garden and rang the farm bell. Then I went down to the Azalea Garden, where other folks awaited the big event. From time to time, I heard the farm bell ring. Despite growing numbers, the atmosphere was peaceful, friendly, upbeat.

I asked those I encountered, “Where are you from?” Many were from Florida. A mother and daughter from Orlando had driven all night and slept at a rest stop in their Mini Cooper. A couple of ladies came up from Georgia. One couple was from Denver but had been vacationing at Hilton Head. Family members wore matching eclipse shirts. Some had brought their dogs. All races were represented, and many nationalities. I heard accents I could only dimly place, and one group spoke German.

Every so often, I put on my eclipse glasses and looked at the sun. It looked like an orange cookie. The sky cleared and clouded again. Some expressed concern that we wouldn’t be able to see anything (Oh you of little faith!) but others were, like me, optimistic that the weather would be kind.

I walked through a sunny area where families had set up canopies. As I approached a scattering of trees, someone called my name! Who here would know me? It was fellow writer Jessica Elkins and her husband. They’d stayed in a motel in Statesboro, Georgia and were enjoying a little picnic of fruit and cheese and crackers. I joined them.

About 1:30, people wearing eclipse glasses stood pointing at the sky. The sun looked like someone had taken a bite out of the orange cookie. Over the next several minutes, the bite grew larger. Then a cloud occluded the sun and we couldn’t see anything. The cloud gave us some relief from the heat, but many were anxious we’d miss the eclipse. I kept saying, “The cloud will move on and then the sky will clear.”

Eventually, that cloud moved, but another took its place! Blue sky lay all around, but that cloud seemed happy to stay put.

The weather was kind. After a very long 20 minutes, the cloud went away and the crowd went, “Ahhh!” The sun now looked like a crescent moon. The light around us was subdued, as though clouds still shaded the Earth. The crescent grew slimmer. Around 2:20, I took leave of my friends.

On the way to the Rose Garden, I passed a group of Seminole Indians who were drumming and chanting. The light continued to dim. I sat down on the ground in the middle of the Rose Garden.

Dusk is falling.

By 2:35, the sun was only a thin sliver and the air was noticeably cooler. Dusk had fallen. Then it grew dark. The crowd cheered. We clapped with excitement. We laughed with delight. The drummers increased the volume of their chant. I took off my eclipse glasses.

In the sky was a silver white ring—the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!

Streetlights came on. At 2:45, a band of sunlight appeared on the north side of the garden. The crowd went, “Ohhh!” I glanced up to see a tiny jewel of sunlight on the edge of the silver ring. It was time to put the eclipse glasses back on.

Pictures don’t do it justice. (Photo by Jake McElveen.)

Daylight returned. People stirred, their eyes lit with wonder, exclaiming, “Wow.” “Cool.” “Incredible.” As I made my way back to my friends, I encountered a phenomenon that wasn’t visible on the lawn of the Rose Garden. The asphalt was covered with little crescents of sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees, as though the image of the crescent sun had been shattered into a thousand pieces and  projected onto the ground. A stander-by said they’d been present before the totality, facing in a different direction.

A Thousand Crescent Suns

There were no strangers. Everyone was overcome with awe. One said, “There are no words to describe it.” Another, “Words are inadequate.” A lady said she now understood why people get addicted to solar eclipses and will go anywhere in the world to see them. I’d heard that the experience was a life-changing event. It’s true.

Jessica began to talk about the next one, in 2024, and said she intended to watch it. Yes, I thought, me, too. The wonderment buoyed me all the way back to my campsite. That night, all I could think about was that beautiful silver ring that was the sun. It still remains in my mind’s eye.

The next total eclipse in Florida is August 12, 2045. I’ll be…how old by then? In the meantime, there are others in parts of the world I have yet to visit. On April 8, 2024, less than seven years from now, a total eclipse will begin in Mexico, cross Texas and Arkansas (where I have family), the Midwest, and into western New York and New England.

Arkansas, 4-8-24, here I come!

CANEBRAKE

I was elated when the 2015 Bacopa Literary Review accepted this short story for publication. Now I want to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it. For more information on Bacopa, visit: http://writersalliance.org/bacopa-literary-review. You can order a copy of the 2015 issue through Amazon. It has more short stories as well as poetry and creative non-fiction. Happy reading!

Cattle Gap

Cattle Gap

Mario stepped off the school bus into the late August heat. “Remember, no TV till I get home,” Aunt Ginny, the driver, told him. “Make a sandwich and do your homework. I’ll be home in forty-five minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Aunt Ginny was his foster mother, not his aunt, but he didn’t want to call her “Mama.” He had a mother. He’d just finished the first week of sixth grade, but he felt so lost. Changing classes was a new experience, and there were so many new faces. He wore nicer clothes than he used to, but old classmates still treated him with contempt.

He should have gone to middle school last year, but he had flunked fourth grade. Not because he was stupid. He’d missed too many days. Last year, he did better. He learned to get himself up in the morning, even if his mother overslept or wasn’t home. He missed his mother.

Mario checked the mail and found a letter from his father in California. “Dear Mario,” it began. “I hope this finds you well. I am quite good, as is Cissy, and the kids. The social worker was here today to do the house check. She said she saw no problem with you coming here. It will take awhile for the paperwork to get to Florida, so we have to be patient. I’m saving money for a plane ticket to come get you.”

A joyful bark interrupted him. Aunt Ginny’s dog Skeeter bounded down the driveway and knocked the letter from his hands. Skeeter always came to greet him. Mario wondered what Skeeter would do after he left. By then, there might be new foster children to greet.

“Hey, Skeeter,” Mario stuck the letter into his backpack to read later. He paused at the cattle gap. This was a relic from the days when the old place had been a farm. The cattle gap was a grate made from railroad rails laid horizontally across a small ditch. Cows would not venture to cross, but it was no barrier for vehicles and most boys.

The ditch held a little water from yesterday’s thunderstorm. It looked like a good place for snakes to hide. Aunt Ginny had warned him to beware of snakes. What he feared even more than snakes was slipping and falling between the rails. He gripped his backpack, inhaled deeply, and balanced on the first rail.  Safely across, he let his breath out. He had never lived in the country before, and there were so many things to worry about.

Aunt Ginny’s farm now grew pine trees. Halfway up the driveway, Skeeter started barking again and dove into the palmettos that grew among the trees. Mario heard a great thrashing noise. Something big was in there. What could it be? A bobcat? A coyote? What if it was a bear?

“Skeeter! Come back!” But Skeeter was too busy to obey.  Mario set his books down and followed. A fine net settled over his face and he cringed. He brushed and sputtered to get the cobweb off. He wiped his mouth with his shirttail and brushed frantically over his head and shoulders. Could the spider be on him? It would be one of those enormous yellow ones that spun great webs between the trees. Aunt Ginny hated them and killed any she found in her yard. So they hid in the woods to ensnare unsuspecting boys.

He stepped forward. Skeeter stopped barking. Mario eyes darted around and looked down. Skeeter sniffed at a large gopher tortoise which tried to run from him. Its short legs flailed against a palmetto frond, which rattled against its neighbors, creating a noise way out of proportion to the size of the creature.

Mario let out a nervous laugh. “All this fuss over a little ole turtle!” He poked it with a stick and watched the gopher’s head and limbs draw into its shell. Maybe this would make a good pet. He carried it to the house, found an old washtub, and filled a dish with water. He’d ask Aunt Ginny what they ate. He never had a pet before.

Mario went back for his backpack and let himself into the house. He fixed a sandwich and poured a glass of iced tea before settling down at the kitchen table with his homework. Then he remembered his father’s letter. “I’m so looking forward to seeing you again. It’s been so long. You must be nearly a man by now.” His mother had called him her “little man.” He had taken care of her when she couldn’t take care of herself. After they put him in foster care, everyone treated him like a child. His first foster parents even made him go to day care. Aunt Ginny wasn’t so bad. She fussed over him, but she also gave him independence.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been more of a father to you,” the letter went on. “I didn’t know how things were with your mother.” Mario winced. He didn’t like people saying things about his mother. “You see, after we split up, every time I went to see you, we’d fight so bad, I thought it was best to just stay away. I thought sending money every month was enough.” Mario had not been aware of any money. His mother said his father was dead. He had a vague memory of a man arguing with his mother, but he was not sure if that had been his father or a stepfather.

His musings were interrupted by Skeeter’s frantic barking. Mario rushed out. There was a new noise, an intense buzzing, like that of a windup toy out of control. And there, on the ground, not two yards from Skeeter’s nose, was a coiled rattlesnake.

He dared not panic. He called Skeeter, who only kept barking and circling the snake, keeping a distance of four or five feet between them. What should he do? Call for help? But Skeeter could be dead before it arrived. His pounding heart drowned out the sounds of both snake and dog. Mario crept up behind Skeeter and grabbed his collar. He dragged him up the steps and through the front door. Skeeter was an outside dog and Aunt Ginny didn’t let him into the house, but this was an exception.

After the rattling noise ceased, Mario looked out and saw the snake crawling across the yard toward the back of the house. What if it got in the house? He ran to the shed and found a hoe. He tried to sneak up on the snake, but it turned back toward him and started to coil. Mario raised the hoe as high as he could and brought it down onto the snake’s neck with enough force to drive it into the ground. The body twisted every which way, but its neck was broken. Mario chopped with the hoe until he severed the head from the body. He trembled back to the porch and collapsed on the steps.

Then he remembered Skeeter and let him out. Skeeter immediately returned to the snake, but when it didn’t react to his barking, he began to sniff. Mario jumped to his feet. Maybe it couldn’t bite, but it still had venom on its fangs. He scooped up the head with the hoe and buried it in the garden. Only now did he examine the body. He’d never seen a real rattlesnake before and didn’t know they were so pretty. This one had diamond-shaped markings on reddish skin. He had seen belts and hat bands made from snake skins. The body was thicker than his arm and might be enough for more than one belt.

Warily, he picked it up. The skin was not slimy, but smooth and cool, like glass. Mario carried it to the back porch and got a knife from the kitchen. Although he had never skinned anything before, he’d seen it done. He cut off the rattle and put it in his pocket. Then he carefully separated the skin from the carcass, which he buried in the garden. He stretched the skin on an old board and nailed it down.

Only then did he truly appreciate his feat. The snake had been as long as he was tall. He shook the rattle in his pocket. Now he knew what a rattlesnake sounds like. The deadly creature could have killed him, but he had killed it. He marveled at how easy it was to kill. He stood up straight. Perhaps he was a man after all.

Suddenly, he heard the school bus out on the road. He put the skin and the tools in the shed and hosed off the back porch. The bus turned into the driveway. He washed the knife and put it away. He slipped into a chair and opened a book as the bus came to a stop in the yard.

A few minutes later, he heard Aunt Ginny say, “What’s this?” He had forgotten all about the turtle.

“I found him in the woods. Can I keep him for a pet? Do you know what they eat?”

She shook her head. “No, you can’t keep him. They’re an endangered species. The game warden’d throw us both in jail. You need to let him go. He’ll find food in the woods.”

Disappointed, Mario hopped off the porch. The motion jiggled the rattle in his pocket. Aunt Ginny perked up as though listening, but when she heard nothing more, she went inside. Mario carried the turtle with one arm and held his other hand over the pocket to keep the rattle quiet. After he released the gopher, he returned to the house and found Aunt Ginny brushing paw prints off the living room couch.

“What was Skeeter doin’ in the house?”

“Uh, there was a rattlesnake in the yard. I didn’t want him to get bit.”

“You left it alone, I hope.”

Mario couldn’t lie to her. His hesitation told on him.

“Empty your pockets,” she directed.

He had no choice but to show her the rattle. Her eyes bulged.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“In the shed.” He told her the whole story.

“I don’t think it’d come into the house. It was just trying to get under the house where it’s cool.” When Aunt Ginny saw the size of the skin, she clutched her chest and hollered, “Holy Jesus! Snake that big could kill you!”

“Yes ma’am.”

“It’s a canebrake rattler. That’s why it’s so red. They don’t usually bother anybody. They usually just run away.”

“But it was trying to bite Skeeter.”

“Only because he was harassing it.  If you see another one, you and Skeeter stay in the house till I come home. Promise?”

“Yes ma’am.” He felt like a child again. He looked down at his feet.

Aunt Ginny put an arm around his shoulders. “Was you scared?”

“No ma’am. Well, maybe. I guess. I was afraid for Skeeter.”

“You were very brave to protect Skeeter. I’m proud of you for that.” Then she turned him to face her and put a hand on each shoulder. “But from now on, leave snakes alone. I can’t have a foster child bit by a poisonous snake.”

“Yes ma’am.” When he looked into her eyes, they were twinkling.

“What do you plan to do with that?” She meant the canebrake skin.

“Can I take it to California with me?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“What do you think my dad will say?”

Aunt Ginny smiled. “I think he will be very proud of you.”

In November, my sister Sue and I went on a genealogical expedition to New London, Connecticut, where our great-great-great-great grandparents, David and Mary Rogers, had lived. We’d tried for years to trace the Rogers line beyond David and Mary but were unsuccessful. We hoped an on-site search of local records would be productive.

For three days, David continued to elude us, but we found many colorful stories about a religious sect called the Rogerenes. (See Part I.) At one point, Sue said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found out we’re descended from them?”

Reverend John Rogers started his church in 1674. Among the Rogerenes’ unconventional beliefs was faith healing. They believed it was a sin to use medicine or doctors because the New Testament taught, “The Almighty had the willingness and power to cure diseases in a less bungling and dangerous way than physicians.” Prayer and the laying on of hands were the only righteous remedies for illness. Considering the level of medical knowledge in those days, they were probably right. At least prayer and laying of hands usually did no harm.

Usually. The Rogerenes had a crisis of faith when a skin malady called the Itch plagued the congregation. Laying on of hands not only failed to cure the condition, but actually spread it. After months of suffering, they held a meeting to decide what to do. The conclusion was that the Itch was not a sickness, but a species of vermin which they might destroy as they would rats or other noxious animals. Thus, they were able to use the customary remedies, “brimstone and lard,” with a clear conscience, and everyone was cured.

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives in the Connecticut College Library. Photo by Jennifer Geoghan

In another case, their methods didn’t do so well. Ebenezer Bolles was cutting brush and vines (poison ivy?) and developed a painful condition that, since he refused medical treatment, led to his death.

Inside the book

Despite their objection to conventional medicine, the Rogerenes willingly took care of the sick and were said to be skillful nurses. In fact, when John Rogers wasn’t being a thorn in the side of the Congregationalists, he spent his life ministering to the sick. He believed his faith would save him from any contagion. It did, for over forty years, until the smallpox epidemic of 1721.

You don’t see these on younger people, but if you look at the upper arm of a person of a certain generation, you might see a circular scar less than ½ inch in diameter. These are from smallpox inoculations. When I was a child, everyone was vaccinated against smallpox. Although I was inoculated three or four times, I don’t have one of these scars because it never “took.” It turned out I inherited a natural immunity to smallpox from my father, who also had no scar.

 

Smallpox is caused by a virus and had been a dreaded disease for thousands of years. It had a 30% mortality rate and those who survived were seriously scarred for life. A worldwide campaign of immunization eradicated the disease in the late 20th century, the last cases occurring in the 1970’s. When my children were vaccinated, smallpox was no longer part of the protocol. These days, no one is likely to contract the disease, unless some evil mad scientist has squirreled away a sample of the virus with intentions to unleash it on an unsuspecting world. If that happens, I hope my children inherited my natural immunity.

But smallpox was a big problem in 18th century New England. There was no cure, only prevention and palliative treatment. Physicians could do little, but nurses could keep patients comfortable, prevent their sores from becoming infected, and keep them hydrated. There were experiments with vaccinations, which involved taking pus from an infected person and applying it to a scratch on the skin of a healthy one, but this was controversial. In fact, someone threatened the life of the famous Reverend Cotton Mather because he promoted smallpox inoculation.

In 1721, smallpox came to Boston and afflicted the city for over a year. Out of a population of 11,000, over 6000 cases were reported and 850 people died.

Smallpox ward, Boston, 1721

John Rogers, believing himself to be under God’s protection, went to Boston to care for the sick. His critics claimed he went out of arrogance. His apologists argued he had tended to smallpox victims before and seemed to be naturally immune. It turns out he wasn’t. After he returned home, he succumbed to the disease. Two of his family members caught it from him and also died. Thus ended a chapter in the history of the Rogerenes.

Resting place of John Rogers

Even without their leader, the sect continued to practice their unusual style of Christianity for another 300 years. Their good deeds were often overlooked and they failed to earn the respect of established religion. In fact, stubborn adherence to their beliefs brought them ridicule from the larger community. After World War I, they faded into history. It was inevitable. The Rogerenes were ahead of their time. The Hippie movement of the 1960’s shared many of their concepts: pacifism, social and political reform, and free thinking.

On our last day in Connecticut, Sue and I visited the Otis Library in Norwich. The genealogy librarian was very helpful and provided enough material to keep us busy for a week, but we had only a few hours. Sue and I divided the stack of documents. I sifted through A Genealogy of the Descendants of Joseph Bolles, which listed several Rogers in the index.

There I found him: David Rogers, born August 31, 1776. He married Mary Stone circa 1800. Could this be my ancestor? His parents were Elizabeth Bolles and John Rogers, great-grandson of the infamous founder of the Rogerenes. Could we actually be descended from that notorious group?

Sue and I had planes to catch. We couldn’t dig any further. After I got home, I tried to find more information on the internet, but David continued to elude me.

Then my little brother, a recent convert to genealogy, somehow traced a possible great-great-great-great grandmother, Polly Story Wheeler, who was listed in the History of Montville, Connecticut. This good woman was married to a David Rogers, born circa 1774, son of John and Elizabeth Bolles Rogers!

When you look at old records, you find all sorts of inaccuracies. In the days before computers, indeed before typewriters, everything was written by hand, and not everyone’s handwriting was legible. A David born in 1776 can be the same David as one whose birthdate is recorded elsewhere as 1774. Polly is a nickname for Mary. Middle names were often family names. Stone and Story could be different interpretations of someone’s penmanship, especially if the writer used flourishes, which they often did in those days.

We have finally tracked down our ancestor David, and Reverend John Rogers was his ancestor. Considering the personalities of my modern Rogers relatives, it makes sense—we inherited our quirky genes from the founder of the Rogerenes. However, my immunity to smallpox must have come from someone else.

An interesting side note: among John’s thousands of descendants are Mormons who had him baptized and his marriages sealed. Considering his beliefs about baptism and marriage, I’d love to be a butterfly on the wall when St. Peter gives him the news!

Another thing, if that insane evil scientist unleashes smallpox on our already suffering world, I will not refuse a vaccination, just in case.

 

 

A Perspective

A few years ago, before I replaced my 1996 Ford Ranger with a newer model, I stopped by my bank one evening to get some cash from the ATM. The bank was closed and the only ATM is a walk-up. Before I got out of my truck, I looked around. There was only one other vehicle in the parking lot, a compact car that could have been a Nissan or a Mazda. It was the sort of car that people of modest means drive, and it was much shinier than my old truck.

A young black man stood at the ATM. Regardless of race, I would have taken a minute to assess whether he seemed to be a safe person. He looked clean and respectable, dressed in slacks and a button up shirt, no tie. He might have been a teacher.

When he glanced my way, I read alarm in his face. Through my tinted windows, he probably couldn’t see who was driving, and his first thought might have been “red neck.” So I stepped out of my truck. He visibly relaxed when he saw I was just a little ole lady.

I kept a respectful distance to let him finish his banking before I approached the ATM. We nodded at each other and said, “Good evening,” and he was on his way.

Sometimes when I go to the grocery store at night, there are knots of young people crossing the parking lot. All kinds of young people: students, athletes, country boys, goths, and groups of kids, both white and black, loudly flaunting their individuality in the face of conformity. I’ve learned to see them for who they are. Most are quite harmless, and many are courteous.

How miserable would I be if I reacted in fear based on their appearance? Instead, I smile, remembering my youth and how the older generation was affronted by how we dressed and wore our hair.

If the young man at the bank had worn a tee shirt and dreadlocks, I might have taken two minutes, instead of one, to assess him for safety. But what if I’d been a white man with a beer belly, how safe would he have felt when I got out of my truck, even with a friendly smile on my face?

That he would have been afraid of me, based on prior experience, without getting to know me, is a sad thought.

 

 

The Rogerenes

Last November, when my sister Sue and I were doing genealogical research in New London, Connecticut, we stumbled across a curious religious group known as the Rogerenes. John Rogers, son of Connecticut founder James Rogers, organized the Seventh Day Baptist Church of New London in 1674. The sect survived into the early twentieth century.

The Rogerenes were sometimes referred to as Singing Quakers, Rogerene Baptists, and Quaker Baptists, although they were neither Quakers nor Baptists. Like Quakers, they believed in peaceful non-resistance. Like Seventh Day Adventists, they observed the Sabbath on the seventh, not the first, day of the week. Much like Christian Scientists, they believed in healing by prayer.

Sue and I were trying to track down our great-great-great-great grandfather, David Rogers who was born around the time of the Revolutionary War. All we knew about him was that his wife was named Mary and they had four children die in March of 1823. We don’t know why they died. In those days, diseases such as Yellow Fever would periodically ravage communities and take out families, but we haven’t found any evidence of an epidemic that year. The children ranged in age from eight to fifteen. Son David G., from whom we’re descended, was six at the time and, of course, survived.

Rogers Cemetery #5

The children were buried in Rogers Cemetery #5 near Montville, Connecticut. We knew that because their graves were recorded on Find a Grave. Finding the cemetery would have been nearly impossible without the help of the local historian, Jon Chase, because there are a good half-dozen Rogers Cemeteries in the county.

Children’s Graves

Other than approximate birth and death dates, we knew little else about David and nothing about Mary. Family lore held that David had been an English captain on a whaling ship and had sailed around the world three times, but family lore can be more fictional than factual. My great-great Uncle Will had our family history traced to the Mayflower, but that document has been lost. Neither Sue nor I have found a connection between the Mayflower Rogers and ours. We spent four days combing through records in Connecticut libraries and city halls. At one time, Connecticut must have had more Rogers than roaches, and many were named David. We kept finding references to the Rogerenes.

Many colorful stories surround the Rogerenes. John Rogers married Elizabeth Griswold four years before he started his church. She not only failed to join his congregation, she felt humiliated by his conduct and sought to divorce him. She described him as a “queer creature who behaved not as other men.” He “entertained strange religious beliefs.” He worked on the Sabbath, refused to pray aloud, and “would not take the noxious medicines prescribed for the ills of Puritan flesh.” The divorce was granted.

The Rogerenes were devoutly Christian but rabidly anti-clerical. The Congregational Church was tax supported. John believed that ministers should not be paid—and certainly not supported by taxes. When they refused to pay taxes, the Rogerenes were heavily fined, and thus had to pay twice.

John Rogers’ House

John Rogers believed one should worship God in a scriptural manner, not by ecclesiastical dictum. “All unscriptural parts of worship are idols and all good Christians should exert themselves against idols.” The Rogerenes didn’t believe in the sanctity of the Puritan Sabbath, holding that since the death of Christ, all days were holy. After church services, they would go about their day like any other. On Sundays, they’d intentionally work where church-goers would see them. If that didn’t get enough attention, they’d march through New London, noisily proclaiming that they were working on the Sabbath.

They’d enter churches of other denominations with their hats on. Sometimes they’d burst in, shouting and disrupting the proceedings, and argue theology with the minister. The women would bring their sewing and knitting to church. Their peculiarities of belief and conduct provoked persecution which “left them neither liberty or property or a whole skin,” according to one chronicler. They were frequently fined, imprisoned, tarred, whipped, and thrown into the icy river for their impudence, but that didn’t change their ways.

The Rogerenes never violated civil laws, only ecclesiastical laws that they believed infringed on their rights of conscience. They fought for religious liberty, against the tyranny and bigotry of the Congregational Church.

John Rogers clashed for years with Reverend (later Governor) Gurdon Saltonstall, who was intolerant of divergent Christian sects. One time, John placed his hand on his heart and stated, “This is the humane body of Christ.” Blasphemy! His sentence was to stand on a gallows with a noose around his neck for 15 minutes and pay a 5 pound fine. Further, he had to post bond of 50 pounds to guarantee his future good behavior. It did no good. John spent nearly four years in prison.

Governor Saltonstall

After Saltonstall was elevated to governor, he had John declared insane. As a result, the windows of his jail cell were blacked out (common treatment for insanity at the time). But John’s friends rioted and had the boards removed. In another incident, John was punished for helping a young man escape from prison. When another Rogerene was imprisoned for failing to keep the Sabbath, her supporters removed the doors from the New London jail.

There are several versions of a story about a Rogerene couple who paid a visit to Rev. (or Governor) Saltonstall. He was either dining or relaxing with his cigar when they arrived. They boasted that they were married in the Rogerene tradition, outside the church and the control of civil authorities. They demanded to know what he was going to do about it.

The good Reverend (or Governor) said to the man, “You mean you are cohabiting with this woman?”

“That’s right,” the man said.

“Madam, you are living with this man as his wife?”

“Yes,” she said, just as proudly.

“Then, by the powers vested in me by the Colony of Connecticut, I pronounce you man and wife.” Then he went back to eating (or smoking his cigar).

Rogerenes wouldn’t say grace at meals. They believed all prayers should be said mentally unless the “spirit of prayer” compelled the use of voice. They believed infant baptism was wrong and practiced adult baptism by immersion. Many of their beliefs sprang from a literal interpretation of Bible passages. The Rogerenes believed that Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, should be celebrated only in the evening.

A few years after Governor Saltonstall departed Connecticut to join his Maker, Reverend Mather Byles, being only in his twenties and no match for the Rogerenes, became their target. It got to the point that if he saw them, he wouldn’t leave home to walk to church. If they came to his services with their hats on or asked him questions, he’d discontinue the service. As soon as he could, he left for a church in Boston where he enjoyed an illustrious career.

Rev. Mather Byles

Our ancestor David continued to elude us, but hardly a source we looked at failed to mention the Rogerenes and their antics.

At one point, Sue said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found out we’re descended from them?”

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, check out my book Trials by Fire, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

At first, they called it a novel coronavirus, but it mutated into a real-time dystopian novel.

At the turn of the year, Covid lurked in the sidelines, waiting to take center stage. Initially only a vague specter, it materialized from the shadows to become a source of ghoulish entertainment, dominating the airwaves. Can this be a replay of 1918? Surely not in this age of medical miracles! But the pundits could not hide their dread. Their knitted brows were enough to freeze my spine. Older ladies of my acquaintance, thinking they were prime victims, quarantined themselves. It was rumored this would become everyone’s fate, but surely that couldn’t happen, could it?

1918 Flu Epidemic

On Friday the 13th, the world changed. Schools closed. People stopped going to work. Panicked hordes stripped grocery shelves clean. Of toilet paper, no less. Meetings, travel plans, even weddings and funerals were cancelled. Life, once plotted out in calendar entries, became a fogged-up windshield in a vehicle out of control, hurtling at unknown speed to a nebulous future. That’s when I realized I was living inside a dystopian novel.

Stories and movies came to mind, of catastrophic events that spelled the end of the world: wars, alien invasions, plagues decimating the world’s population. In some stories, heroes emerged to save remnants of mankind, while in others the heroes were lucky to save themselves. Dystopian stories are great entertainment, but they’re no fun for their besieged characters. And now I was a character in one!

As a writer, it’s not such a bad place to be as long as my retirement checks keep coming, the electric grid holds up, and I can get groceries every week or so. If the electricity fails and I can’t get to the store, I’d still survive, as long as my cache of last year’s hurricane supplies held out. But, darn, I’d have to write on paper instead of my computer if the power went off.

Then I found out how much I depend on technology. One day, my phone stopped working. Good, no spam calls for a few days until a technician can fix it. I still had internet. A week later, the internet went out! I nearly panicked. I was a character in a movie, surrounded by unknown perils, cut off from the outside world. How could I survive without email, Google, and Wikipedia? Fortunately, the phone company had it fixed within hours.

The first week of quarantine was unsettling. The second, I settled into the unreality of it and watched the movie play out around me. But the surreal turned bizarre when the world began to morph into my dystopian novel.

My yet-to-be-published dystopian novel takes place in the future when solar power has replaced fossil fuels, but it didn’t happen soon enough. South Florida has gone the way of Atlantis and autocrats build houses that can withstand Category 7 hurricanes. Books aren’t banned, but they’re obsolete. My heroine collects books on history and studies them to uncover lost truths. When information is stored digitally, it’s easy to rewrite history.

The federal government is weak and ineffectual and the US has been partitioned into autonomous regions, each with its own set of laws. When a killer hurricane strikes, Georgia closes its border to keep Florida refugees out. Hospitals are out of supplies and the sick and injured crowd the hallways and cover the floors. The poor are hit hardest and rich see opportunities to enrich themselves. Until the pitchforks come out…

 

My novel is a fantasy, a series of events that (I sincerely hope) won’t come true. Or will they?

Coastal communities are already dealing with sea level rise. Hurricanes are becoming more powerful. (My fellow Floridians really dread the advent of this year’s hurricane season.)

As Covid went viral in New York and New Jersey, and hordes of Yankees headed south to escape, there were rumors that Florida was setting up roadblocks to keep them, and their contagion, out. Hospitals are over capacity and undersupplied. An economic bailout has the rich corporations making out like bandits while the rest of us are being thrown crumbs.

I wrote my book long before all this became reality, and I never expected to see it happen. Each development has made me pause and reflect. Just coincidence. I’m certainly no prophet.

Then a government official gave out erroneous information and the website he alluded to was later altered to agree with what he said! Rewriting history is not a new idea. Remember 1984?

Now several states, frustrated by the failed leadership of the federal government, are forming regional coalitions to make pacts on how to keep their citizens safe while restoring normalcy.

But not all is gloom and doom. In my book, the heroes encounter good people, many of them have-nots, who share what little they can. Even some of the well-to-do show their charitable sides.

In the current pandemic, people are stepping up to contribute what they can to those in need. Mom and Pop restaurants are feeding the hungry. Ladies with sewing machines are stitching up face masks. It’s refreshing to see that compassion and service survive in in our present dystopia, as well as the fictional ones.

I’ll tell you, though, if any more elements of my book come to pass, (if the pitchforks come out!) I may just have to rewrite it. Maybe as a cozy romance? What could be the harm in that?

Forest bathing, a form of Nature Therapy, has been around as long as people have lived in the woods. The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere.” It’s a great way to cope with stress. I’m sure that’s what made Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond so therapeutic.

A nice place to bathe.

Today, everyone blogs about how they’re coping with Covid 19. I follow several blogs. Some folks, who used to post weekly or monthly, have taken to posting every day. I suppose that’s how they cope, but I don’t have time to read them all. You might say I cope with my bulging inbox by ignoring some of them. Sorry, fellow bloggers.

I follow all the health guidelines, but I don’t obsess about the virus. It’s been years since I had a cold or flu. Not because I haven’t been exposed. The past two flu seasons, I’ve gone to the elementary school to work with the children’s school gardens and found half the staff and student body out with the flu. Most of the teachers wore masks. They offered me one, but I declined. Although children hugged and touched me all day, I didn’t get sick. (I just hope my luck holds out!)

Several things keep me healthy. One is my well water. Sometimes people who come to the house mention the taste or smell of sulfur, but I’m so used to it I don’t notice. Sulfur water is good for you.

Another is gardening. Besides the enjoyment, there are scientific reasons why gardening makes us feel better. Healthy soil has bacteria that interact with our bodies, boosting our moods and immune systems. How these bacteria get into the body, scientists aren’t sure. They may interact with the skin or we may inhale or ingest them.

One organism they’ve studied is Mycobacterium vaccae. Scientists have fed M. vaccae to mice and found they have less anxiety and perform better in mazes. They’ve isolated a fatty acid in M. vaccae that binds with receptors in immune cells, locking out chemicals that cause inflammation. They think they can use this to make an anti-stress vaccine. But don’t wait for a vaccine—you can buy M. vaccae supplements!

When we garden together, the children get their hands in the dirt. This contributes to their health. Presently, schools are closed and parents are trying to homeschool their offspring. I hope when they get tired of them underfoot, the parents send the kids outdoors into the sunshine and fresh air to get dirty.

Another thing that keeps me healthy is living in the middle of five acres of woodland. Although confined at home, I have freedom. Forest bathing is an everyday thing for me.

My house in the woods.

Up until a few weeks ago, I was busy with many volunteer activities. So busy, at times I threatened to go back to work so I could get some rest! Or I wished the world would stop long enough to let me catch my breath. Be careful what you wish for.

At the beginning of the month, my calendar for March and April was so full I barely had a day each week to just stay home. Church, Garden Club, Master Gardeners, Writers Alliance—all had demands. This doesn’t include personal and family things, and writing.

I made to-do lists. Lots of lists. On one piece of paper I had five lists. On another, six.

Stop the world! I want to get off!

I was kidding! Really. I just wanted a little relief, some time to myself. Could I be personally responsible for this worldwide shutdown?

Leaves of three–don’t bathe with me!
Poison Ivy

Overnight, everything was cancelled, through April, maybe May, or beyond. No meetings. No plant sale. No school gardens. No granddaughter’s softball games. No church services. (These are being broadcast over Facebook, but I don’t have to go anywhere, just stay home and watch.) Days and days without obligations, nowhere to go, no one to see. I’m an introvert, happy to be by myself with my thoughts.

Virginia Creeper is a good neighbor.

Many people have problems with social isolation. Not me. But I’m not totally isolated. There is telephone and internet. I’m in contact with people every day and there’s still work to be done: approve the Garden Club budget, field questions and information, tend to Writers Alliance business that must go on, etc. I stay busy, but it’s so nice not to have to go somewhere every day. I can wear old clothes and forget makeup and deodorant. I take naps. I’m a hermit. I love it.

I can’t sit still long enough to binge on Netflix. I may watch an hour or two a night, or I may just read. I also listen to self-improvement podcasts. That’s where forest bathing entered the equation. Towards the end of one podcast, the guru said. “Now go out and do some Forest Bathing.” Isn’t that what I’ve been doing?

I write outdoors as much as possible. I’m writing this on my laptop on the porch. I’m moving my houseplants outside. I’m making attempts at vegetable gardening, even though last year the wildlife harvested more than I did. I walk the quarter mile down my driveway to the mailbox. Even though I’m mostly in the shade, my skin is showing signs of tan.

My driveway

But when I googled Forest Bathing, I realized I was leaving out an important factor: mindful meditation. I shouldn’t just scurry around getting my hands dirty. I need to make mindful contact with the soil, breathe deeply, close my eyes, feel the sun on my skin, listen to the birds and beasts that share my little paradise. Smell the wild azaleas.

Native wild azalea.

 

But many of you are still in the throes of winter, or you live in cities where you can’t get out in nature. What can you do? Get a houseplant. Start a tomato plant on your windowsill. Open a window for a few minutes and drink in fresh air. Use your mind to forest bathe. Imagination can be powerful. Close your eyes and picture yourself in the woods. Take a hot bath and pretend you’re basking in a hot spring in the mountains. Make plans to get out into the wild once this is over. Hold to that possibility. This, too, shall pass.

You can also read a good book that takes place in nature. I have a suggestion: Trials by Fire. The story will take you out of yourself and into a wilderness far, far away.

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

Happy New Year!

You may have noticed I haven’t posted in a while. It’s not that I’ve been idle. This year I’ve done a lot of traveling, besides to Djibouti in January. During the summer, I traveled as far as upstate New York for a family reunion and spent time with my children and grandchildren in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. Then in October, I realized one of my life-long dreams and went to Greece—Athens, the Parthenon, and beautiful islands in the Aegean Sea.

As if that wasn’t enough, in November I joined my sister Sue in Connecticut for a genealogy expedition. This was the first time since childhood that I ventured to a northern clime during winter. I survived. When my granddaughter was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains in December, I braved snow and ice for this happy occasion.

So I have many adventures to write about, including the rest of my journey to Djibouti. I promise to deliver.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, because I have. I’m polishing a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo a few years ago, while another simmers on the back burner. One of my short stories was published in Bacopa Literary Review this fall. But what I’m excited about today is the novel I just released, Trials by Fire, which is the first volume of a trilogy, The Long Road to Namai.

This story has been down a long road itself. When I was a kid, my sisters and brothers and I would camp out in the backyard on summer nights and tell ghost stories. This was science fiction, not a ghost story, and it was so long ago I don’t remember much about the original version. During college, I developed the story a little more. Through the intervening years, I wrote at least one short story which bears little resemblance to the present incarnation. None of these previous efforts bore fruit.

Then I retired and spent a month writing the first novel length version. I went so far as to self-publish it, but gave away more copies than I sold. A few years later I reread the book and thought, “What a great story, but what lousy writing!” I took it off the market and totally recrafted the whole thing. The story was still good and the writing much better, but it was too long and I couldn’t get the word count down without sacrificing important elements.

I decided to follow the suggestions of friends to divide the story into at least two parts and market it to Young Adult readers. I won’t bore you with all the details involved in getting a book market-ready, but as one person warned me, it takes longer than you think. Finally, here it is.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy this novel even if you’re not into science fiction. It’s also a human interest story and unlike anything else you’ve read. During the coming year, I will finish parts two and three and release them for your reading pleasure. Stay tuned.

Trump Tower, Djibouti

Did you know there is a Trump Tower in Djibouti? It’s a well-kept secret, but pictures don’t lie. (Well, sometimes they do, but I don’t know how to photo-shop.) Not only do few people know about this feat of architecture, even fewer have been inside. I’m one of the lucky ones.

West side of the Lighthouse.

It is better known as the Balbala Lighthouse or the Ayabley Lighthouse, named for the colonial fort that once guarded the city. It stands catty-corner across the street from the Project House. The exterior is an invitation to graffiti, and someone spray painted in large letters:

After we finished our first session at the Project House we walked across the street to the lighthouse.

Town of Balbala from the lighthouse.

Three of the bead girls, including “Rose,” went with us.

Sisters and Bead Girls

When I visited Djibouti in 2004, we were not allowed to go inside, but that has changed.

Djibouti City

A family lives in the lighthouse. We asked for permission to go in and they granted it. The tower is in the corner of a gated wall around a dusty courtyard. We had to climb several stone “steps” to get to the gate, not an easy feat for little old ladies wearing long dresses. The man who said we could come in noticed us struggling to scramble up a two-foot high step and brought out a small stool to make it easier. This was one of the many examples of courtesy we were to experience in this Muslim country.

North view

Inside the building is a steep metal staircase/ladder with rickety railings that may have been there since the lighthouse was built 100 years ago. The staircase shook and swayed as though welds and bolts were ready to come apart. It seemed to be held together primarily by a fresh coat of paint. A reasonable person would have declined to set foot on such a structure, but we had already stepped outside our comfort zone many times on this trip. Faced with an adventure of a lifetime, we refused to let caution stop us. Fortunately, the ladder held together and we met with no mishaps.

This looks more solid than it felt.

The bottom story of the tower serves as the family’s kitchen. The floor is hard-packed dirt that seems to slope towards the door. There may have been a reason for that—drainage?—in this land of little rain? The floor may not have been leveled since Djibouti gained its independence from France over forty years ago. What clued me that this was a kitchen was the presence of two refrigerators. There was no stove, only a cooking area on the floor similar to a small fire circle at a campsite. The family did not want us to take pictures of their home, and we respected that, but I was allowed to photograph the staircase.

Northwest view

The windows were covered with boards, perhaps to protect from heat and dust, but there were gaps to let in a little light. Openings in the walls look like slits from which to fire guns. That suggests the lighthouse once served as a fortress.

East view

 

The second floor was bare except for a few pallets and a hammock with mosquito net, obviously the sleeping area. I never encountered any mosquitoes in Djibouti, but I’m told that they can be a problem at times.

Southeast view

In my experience, lighthouses are built near the ocean and I wondered why this one is so far inland. When I stepped out onto the roof, I found out why. The tower is built on the tallest hill in the area and you can see all around the city and countryside for many miles. Its light projects far out to sea.

The Port in the distance.

The lighthouse is, and has been, operational for over 100 years.

The light

The Project House can be seen from the roof, as can volcanoes in the distance.

Project House and gas station, volcano in distance

 

In the corner of the compound opposite from the tower is a covered area. This could have been housing for another family or additional living or work space for the family in the lighthouse. It would have been shady, if not rainproof, but the walls would have blocked any breeze. I didn’t think to ask what it was.

Courtyard

Local author Djibouti Jones wrote an article about her visit to the lighthouse at http://www.ethnotraveler.com/2013/12/light-upon-light/. Please read it. After their visit, she and her friend Sayiid disputed whether there were three floors or four. Sayiid was right. Trust me, there are three: the kitchen floor, the bedroom floor, and the roof. Climbing up in the lighthouse is such a unique experience, it’s easy to see how the imagination could be overwhelmed.

This building next door looks official but doesn’t appear to be in use. The khat stand on the left was probably put out of business by the khat store across the street.

Saturday morning, Lorraine picked me and Jen up at the guest house and we all went to the Project House. The lobby was full of young girls, the Running Girls, who were there for their graduation.

The Running Girls

The Project house is a center for several programs sponsored by Local Initiatives for Education, or LIFE, the NGO the Nordmeyers work for. It’s housed in a four bedroom, two bath apartment above two storefronts in the nearby community of Balbala. When I visited in 2004, Balbala was outside the city, but by now the city has grown around it. Its name refers to the flashing light of the lighthouse which is located there.

LIFE sponsors a girls’ track team. Until recent years, girls in Djibouti did not participate in athletics. At first there was resistance to it, but it has become acceptable. More than acceptable—one of the graduates of the program participated in the Summer Olympics in Brazil in 2016.

The running girls range in age from 11 to 16. They train at the local stadium and come to the Project House only for special events. To participate in the Running Club they are required to stay in school. On this occasion, each girl received a backpack full of personal items and writing materials. The backpacks were made at the Project House by the Sewing Girls.

Three of the graduates

I’m always impressed by the colorful clothing of the women of Djibouti. Many of the Running Girls are very poor but they wore their best outfits that day. In the pictures, you’ll see that everyone is barefoot. It’s customary to take your shoes off at the door to avoid tracking in any disease-causing organisms you might pick up on the streets. Most people wear flip flops, which are cool and easy to slip on and off. The Running Girls are given athletic shoes for training, but some of them run on the track barefoot because, they say, the shoes are too heavy.

Girls with backpacks and coach

Lorraine called the girls into the work room two or three at a time, spoke with them, and gave them their backpacks. Most of the girls were quite shy. They also kept their heads covered even though they were inside, at a safe place with only women. Later during our stay we attended a track meet and saw some of the girls run.

The Project House has a sewing room, a bead room, a store, and a workroom.

Shopping opportunity

Lorraine and her friend Herut teach sewing to young women to prepare them to make an independent living. They make purses, aprons, pin cushions, rag rugs, and other things, including back packs. The girls receive two years of instruction, and when they graduate, each is given a pedal sewing machine. This is important because their homes have no electricity. They leave the program with marketable skills.

 

Sewing Room

Donations of these pedal sewing machines come in from all over the world. A few of the girls have a mechanical bent and have learned to repair the machines for the Project House.

Old pedal machine in good condition.i

The Bead Girls were trained to make beads from strips of paper rolled up and covered with resin. They now run their own business and rent their room from LIFE. I put in an order for a blue necklace and earrings. One girl looks so much like Jen’s daughter Rose that she and Jen “adopted” each other when Jen visited before.

Jen and “Rose”

On Sunday, we returned to the Project House. The Bead Girls were cutting strips of blue magazine pictures for my beads. The Sewing Girls were making pin cushions. These are very nice, but they stuff them with scraps of cloth. Lorraine has suggested they stuff them with hair, which would keep the pins from rusting, but they say no, the hair is dirty. She told them they could wash it, but they hadn’t followed this advice yet. If they’d had pin cushions stuffed with hair, I’d have bought some.

The Bead Girls at work

Jen knows how to reupholster furniture and was happy to teach the girls. A couple of chairs at the Project House needed to be recovered. Jen showed them how to take the seats apart, measure the fabric, cut it, and reassemble the chairs. They worked on a simple chair with a seat cushion and a desk chair. The girls caught on quickly. This was to be a two day job.

Working on a chair cushion

Monday morning, we returned to the Project House where Jen helped the girls finish upholstering the chairs. Now they have an additional skill which will help them earn a living. Sue showed the girls how to make a fabric flower to embellish a project.

Finished chairs

The storefronts downstairs house an auto parts store and a khat store. On the first day, I took a picture. We heard that the men at the khat store didn’t like it, so when we went back, we asked permission. Immediately, they became friendly. So friendly, that when Lorraine told them we were her sisters, they proposed marriage! She said we were already married, so that was that.

Khat and auto parts stores

We returned to the Project House the following Sunday. By now, my necklace and earrings were ready. Herut had made a fabric purse to which she affixed a cloth flower, the center of which was a button. That purse would bring a pretty penny at a fashionable boutique.

This time, Sue taught the girls how to sew a zipper into a throw pillow and we showed them how to make a lapped pillow cover. Covered pillows are yet another product the girls can make to sell.

This was our last visit to the Project House. Djiboutians are generous people who enjoy feeding visitors and giving gifts. The girls probably would have showered us with gifts, but we settled on one apiece. Deka gave me a bag she had sewn. I am proud to use it as a book bag, a crochet bag, and an all-round tote bag.

Deka’s bag and my beads

Since I last visited Lorraine and John in Djibouti in 2004, they had downsized their living space. The boys had gone off to college and now live in the US. Sadie, the only child left at home, attends school at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya and wasn’t home when we visited. Although the family has a three bedroom house, John uses one bedroom as his office, which leaves only one for guests. And there were four of us.

A few blocks away is an apartment leased by a non-governmental organization. The Nordmeyers rent a room there when they need a “guest house.” We decided that Sue and Nita, who were new to Djibouti, would stay at the Nordmeyers, and Jen and I, who had visited before, would sleep at the guest house.

The apartment is on the second floor in a building with three other units. There is an office used by the NGO staff and three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a tiny kitchen. The dining area in the hallway outside the kitchen has a table that seats no more than four people. Lorraine had furnished us with breakfast items, but we ate most meals at her house.

View from the back window of the guest house. Note the contrast between opulence and poverty.

Behind the guest house are empty lots surrounded by walls with gates. There may have been buildings here at one time that have been taken down. Two or three men have shelters in the lots. I don’t know whether they live there by permission or are squatting. One morning I watched a man get up, fold his bedding, and prepare to go to work.

Besides use of the kitchen, we had the master bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom has a double bed and a single. The double is so tall one almost needs a stepstool to climb on it. The single bed is a wooden frame with ropes to support a foam mattress. Jen didn’t want to climb, so she chose the single bed and assured me it was quite comfortable.

The frame of the single bed.

Closeup detail.

The master bathroom has a built-in tub with sides two feet high. Why so high, we never learned. The other bathroom has a shower. Few people in Djibouti, other than VIPs from other countries, have water heaters. The city water doesn’t run all the time. When it does, the household fills a large tank out in the yard. While the water sits in the tank, it warms to the ambient temperature. Since it was winter, the water wasn’t very warm. For this reason, neither of us cared to soak in that deep tub.

The water tank is shaded by bougainvillea to keep the water “cool” in the summer.

To take a shower with cold water is akin to immersing oneself in a Florida spring (72 degrees year round). Either ease into the water and wait for your nerve endings to go numb one by one, or take the plunge and get it over with. I prefer the slow option. Turn the water on, slowly let one part of your body adjust to the temperature, then expose another, until you can stand it well enough to get clean.

The water is also brackish, so everyone buys drinking water. I used tap water to brush my teeth as well as for washing, with no ill effects. But the salt is hard on plumbing. When we first arrived, a dish had been set under the toilet connection to catch water dripping from a small leak. I’d empty the dish when it got full. A few days later, the dish was no longer adequate to hold the leaking water, so I replaced it with a cooking pot and asked John to notify the landlord. Before he replaced the connection, the pot became inadequate and we’d come home to a wet bathroom floor. The floor in the other bathroom was frequently wet as well. At first we didn’t understand why. It turned out to be another leak.

I must mention the toilet. Because of the inadequacy of the plumbing, one did not put toilet paper in the commode. There was a waste basket beside it for the used toilet paper. It was the maid’s responsibility to empty it. I felt sorry for her but was glad I didn’t have to do it.

Air-conditioning was available, for an extra fee, so we didn’t use it. We opened windows for a cross breeze. Since it seldom rains in Djibouti, I didn’t worry about rain coming through the windows, but sometimes we’d come back to find the windows closed and the apartment stuffy.

Only a few times did we have contact with the people who used the office. We were usually out and about during the day when they were there. Although the cleaning girl came in sporadically, I saw her only once. The place didn’t get very dirty. Sometimes she did laundry and dried it on racks in a vacant room. People who came in during the day often left dirty dishes that seldom got washed unless we did them.

The maid came in one morning before we left, with a baguette and an orange soda. She said something about “Coke,” but she knew little more English than we did Somali. Finally, I figured out that she wanted to eat her breakfast before working, which she did. Bread and soda. I hope she had more nourishing meals later in the day.

We had little contact with other inhabitants of the apartment building, other than the watchman. Every gated compound has a watchman who lives on the property in a roofed shelter. His job, besides keeping an eye on things, is to open and close the gates. When residents get ready to leave in their car, he’ll open and close the gate for them. When they drive home, they toot the horn and he’ll open the gate. There is a small gate for pedestrians, which we generally used since Lorraine’s house was within walking distance. A few times the latch got messed up, and the watchman came to our rescue.

“Johnny’s” shoes

Someone who lives in the building has a pair of flip-flops he kept leaving in the hallway or on the stairs, not always in the same place. Jen said her son Johnny leaves his shoes in the middle of the floor, so we began calling them “Johnny’s shoes.” One day, the flip-flops were nowhere to be seen. We wondered what had happened to “Johnny.” To our relief, his flip-flops were back in the hallway the next day.

It was like a scene out of a movie and had the aura of cloak and dagger. Friday night in the capital city of Djibouti, although it was the Sabbath, the town was lively. Khat dealers, mostly women, sat at their street-side booths, plying their business. Khat is the recreational drug of choice in Djibouti. It’s imported from Ethiopia daily, because it must be fresh. Users, mostly men, chew the leaves for the euphoria it gives them. It’s addictive and, like many addictive drugs, takes a social and financial toll on the family. One would wonder why it was sold so openly—because it’s legal. Not only legal, it’s a lucrative income for those who import and distribute it. The wife of the President of Djibouti is one of the chief importers.

Khat Dealers. These are all men. I didn’t get any pictures of the women.

In 2004, when I visited Djibouti, the airport prominently posted signs saying “No Khat.” While I was waiting for my flight home, a plane landed. I went to the window to see if it was mine. No. It was a cargo plane with a rear-loading ramp. Before it had completely come to a halt, a crowd of people rushed onto the runway toward it. When the back opened and the men began to unload large bales wrapped in burlap, I realized this was the daily khat shipment. (I guess nobody read the signs.)

But we certainly didn’t go downtown for khat. We went to exchange currency.

This was our first day in Djibouti. My sister Lorraine and her husband John had picked us up at the airport and took us to their house, which is just down the street. They served us supper of bean soup and homemade bread. Delicious. Spices are inexpensive in Djibouti and the food is always flavorful. After supper, we unpacked items we’d brought them, things hard to buy in Djibouti, such as vitamins and sewing scissors.

Djibouti Art

Two of us would be staying in the guest house a few blocks away. We took our luggage there, then set out to find the money changers.

 

Djibouti Street

The last time I was in Djibouti, the money changer was a man with an official-looking kiosk, and we had gone in broad daylight to cash my Travelers Checks.

 

This time we carried cash and by now it was dark. John drove us to a less than prosperous part of town where women sat on street corners with bags of currency. We pulled into a side street. A woman came up to us and dealt with us through the car windows.

She didn’t speak English, so Lorraine, who is fluent in Somali, translated for us. The rate of exchange was $200 for 35,000 Djibouti Francs, and of course she charged a fee. One of my sisters had a $50 bill with a tiny rip in it. The woman refused to exchange it. She said the bank wouldn’t take it. We did change some money with her, then went elsewhere. We parked this time and walked to where a pair of women sat on another street corner. They were more personable but still wouldn’t take the “damaged” bill. Yet some of the bills we received from them had tears in them.

Lorraine told them that we were her sisters. Five sisters? People in Djibouti appreciate large families. They thought so many sisters in one family was wonderful and they wanted to know more about our family. When Lorraine told them how many children Jen and Nita have, they were even more impressed. If it weren’t for the language barrier, our conversation might have extended further into the night.

You’d think it would be risky for a woman to be on the street with so much money without an armed guard, but Lorraine said there’s an unwritten understanding that the money changers are not to be molested.

After we finished changing money, we rode around town to look at some of the sights.

Playground

I don’t have any pictures of the money changers. For one thing, the people of Djibouti are sometimes reluctant to have their pictures taken. For another thing, I was taking pictures with my phone and it doesn’t take good night photos.

Mosque

 

Stay tuned for more adventures. I have lots of beautiful daytime pictures of this amazing country.

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