Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

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I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

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I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

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The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

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Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

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When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

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I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

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I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

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When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

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My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

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They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

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According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

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I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

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If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

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Alaina Goes to Ghana

My friend who is in pharmacy school had an amazing opportunity to go to Ghana this year with Global Brigades to help set up medical clinics and educate people about healthcare. She says she hates writing, but I’ve managed to convince her to let me compile and edit her Facebook posts into a story to share with you. It is written in her voice and only edited for grammar and clarity.


Day 1

I have arrived safely in Ghana. Our lodge was three hours from the nearest airport. The air was wet and slightly scented, like being in a sauna. On the long drive through the countryside, we got our first glimpses of Ghana, covered in green trees with deep red soil. We drove through countless small villages on the way. Every time we stopped at a traffic light, vibrant people would cluster around and try to sell us treats from the overflowing bowls balanced on their heads.

35427395_10155352333095824_7391464207599796224_oOur lodge is lovely and surprisingly ornate, compared to the small shelters nearby. We are sleeping in rooms of four with bunk beds and private bathrooms with showers. The rooms are air-conditioned and that is heavenly. There is a large common seating area with big windows where we meet to talk and eat the wonderful food they prepare for each meal. Most meals are served buffet style, with a chicken dish, a fish option in rich sauces, grilled veggies, salad, some sort of dessert or bread, and fresh juice made from ginger and pine that tastes like paradise. 

Day 2

This morning we enjoyed an English-style breakfast, with eggs, toast, baked beans, coffee and an Ovaltine-style malty chocolate drink. We spent the morning sorting and repackaging the medical supplies we brought. We counted out one month supplies of vitamins into zip-lock bags using plates and butter knives to hold and sort the pills as we worked. Directions for medications are marked with symbols instead of words: a circle for once daily and two circles for twice daily.

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We enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken, fish, salad, and plantains and then headed to one of the villages. We wanted to get to know some of the people we would be seeing and invite them to join us at the clinic the next day.

The whole village was overrun by adorable animals, wandering in and out of the houses and sleeping in pots and on roofs. Baby goats, cats, and chickens stumbled between our legs. We set out in groups of six plus a translator to meet the members of the community.

Everyone was very welcoming. They have a tradition in Ghana of inviting you into their homes and offering you a seat, water, and food in ritual fashion before asking why you’ve come. We were able to ask lots of questions about their lives and culture, as well as their experiences with healthcare.

I brought a Polaroid camera and took pictures of everyone we visited. The children went crazy about it, running around and posing for us. One family played music for us on their radio and invited me to dance with them. I can’t stop smiling about how wonderful and kind everyone was. 

35490852_10155352402665824_5405476595559301120_o (1)We learned that many of them walk an hour in the hot sun everyday to farm. They can’t find buyers for their crops, so they have food but no money. That means they can eat, but can’t buy basic non-food necessities. The little kids asked us for toothbrushes by miming brushing their teeth with their fingers. I’m glad we brought lots of toothbrushes and supplies to share.

They all seemed happy to have us there and excited to visit the clinic the following day. It was hard not to give them everything I had. They were kind, beautiful, proud, and generous. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.

35634011_10155352400430824_2850625135008808960_oAfter dinner, we attended a talk from their local doctor, Dr. Cornelius to hear more about the healthcare challenges he faces in the region and the tools they are using to treat people.

Day 3

On Monday we set up our first clinic in their local hospital. It was a good building but had almost no medicine or supplies. There were only five hospital beds and otherwise it was mostly empty rooms. We set up a small pharmacy by laying out boxes of medicine on the floor.

35777187_10155357661315824_8270300656225484800_oThis particular village has easier access to medical care than most because it is so close to a facility with trained nurses. People in other villages in Ghana often have to travel on foot long distances to find a clinic with nurses and if they need any prescription medicine, they need to go farther still to reach a regional health center. This typically requires hiring a cab and taking a day off of work, which few of them can afford.

35629056_10155357662225824_2182456922446233600_o.jpgThey rely heavily on yearly medical brigades to bring medical supplies and care, however there have been several years where no aid arrived due to fear of the zika virus. I’m glad we’re here now.

The first village we went to is one that our program has visited before. It’s helpful to see that some of the positive changes brought in previous visits have stuck with them. During the first encounter with this village everyone was cooking inside, which was causing them to have respiratory disorders. We helped them create community outdoor cooking areas which they are still using.

35955080_10155362817785824_8263619722927407104_o.jpgHypertension is still a huge problem and many people came to the clinic with systolic blood pressure far over 200. (Note: below 120 is healthy, above 140 is red alert) Global Brigades has helped many people in the village become enrolled in the national Ghanaian health insurance which makes visits and medicine mostly affordable.

It is difficult to convince people to come to the clinic for chronic care if they’re feeling well. We spent a long time trying to help people understand that high blood pressure can lead to stroke, which they’re familiar with and afraid of. Those who have gotten medication in the past have only taken them sporadically, so a lot of time went into education and motivational interviewing to help people engage in maintenance care and preventative care.

35802247_10155357662475824_3485987004385067008_o.jpgWe are working to help the villages develop systems for chronic disease management, such as having a monthly day where a doctor visits from the regional center to provide care for people with chronic conditions. If we can get funding toward it, this could become a celebratory day with a meal provided to encourage people to attend. Hopefully some of these changes will help people stay healthier.

These clinics have been incredible to experience. I can’t get over how patient and grateful everyone has been. The villagers are usually lined up long before we arrive and some wait all day to be seen without complaint. When we spoke in their language or used our Ghanaian names the mothers would light up and smile proudly at us. In Ghana your name is based on the day of the week you were born. My name here is Afua, Friday born.

35894297_10155357685495824_8890960470295445504_o.jpgThe clinics are set up with a number of stations, starting with intake, triage, physician visits, optometrist visits, pharmacy, and counselling/education. We rotate between these different areas and home visits. My favorite station so far has been optometry. The doctor spent a long time teaching us about how to diagnose eye disorders and conduct exams. So many people came in with poor vision, sometimes unable to see the chart at all and restricted to finger counting at 3 meters or light only. It felt wonderful to give these people medicines and glasses and watch the change on their face as they were able to see clearly for the first time in their lives. It felt like we were peddling miracles.

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Day 5

My adventures were mildly paused when I became quite sick for a few days. It seems the food disagreed with me and after eating I had to collapse into bed with painful shivering and fever. Good news about being on a medical brigade is that you’re surrounded by doctors and medicine. After some rest, antibiotics, and restricting myself to just bread, hard boiled eggs, and rice, I’ve made it through and can go back to clinics at last. Looking forward to being back in action and grateful for the wonderful people who took care of me and luxuries I often take for granted like shelter and running water. I feel so lucky to live a life with so many gifts, when so many struggle.

Day 6

36063103_10155366573540824_2358097174769696768_o.jpgWe moved to another village called Otuam. Their health facility was much smaller and patients had to wait outside under tents to be seen. I worked with Dr. Cornelius, testing for malaria and checking blood sugar. In Ghana, Malaria is seen more as a nuisance than a life-threatening sickness. It’s similar to the way people in America relate to the flu. The flu occasionally kills people in the US, but most of us expect to get it at some point. Since we were already on malaria prophylaxis (vaccine), I followed their lead and have been mostly skipping insect repellent. Amazingly I haven’t gotten a single bite all week.

Working with the physicians was wonderful. I learned so much about how to diagnose the common diseases and developed a talent for getting blood from kids without making them cry. I was sad to see how many little ones had swollen bellies. I always associate it with undernourishment, but on our clinic intake form everyone indicated that they were able to eat.

Later in the day we went from home to home taking blood pressures and inviting people to the clinic if they needed additional care. Otuam was close to the sea and many of the houses were made out of palm fronds. There was a quality to the place that felt like Neverland, with forts hidden among the trees and laundry and nets hanging like pirate sails. Hungry cats watched as people cleaned fish and radios dangled from branches. The children were curious and wild as ever and I had fun playing and adventuring with them. It was an incredible day.

Day 7

We visited the large regional hospital that patients are referred to if they can’t be treated in the clinics. If they have Ghanaian health insurance many things are covered, but if they didn’t register or can’t afford it they have to pay cash for services. Registering can be challenging and is already closed for this year because the machine that prints cards is broken.

Getting to the hospital is difficult for people in the villages. Even those who can grow enough food to eat well still may not have any money to pay for a taxi. Those who can’t afford a cab may walk for days under hot sun.

36176328_10155366573850824_2128956022373482496_oThis hospital is rare and unique in Ghana. It has a special team to manage chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. We spent some time talking to their director and making plans to work together over the next year to bring their amazing work to more communities. We are also going to try to get them additional funding for important equipment they need, such as the ability to test HbA1c levels (a diabetes blood sugar test). We were able to tour the hospital and were overjoyed to find that, unlike the rural village clinics, they kept medical records and charts on their patients. I’m excited to see teams in Ghana working to initiate chronic condition management and hope other hospitals are inspired by their work.

36063908_10155366573485824_3676942903927635968_o.jpgOn the way home from the hospital we took some time to relax at one of the local beaches. It was incredibly beautiful, but parts were covered in litter and we were told the water wasn’t clean enough to swim in. It was nice to listen to the sound of the waves and rest in a place with a cool breeze. Such a lovely day.

Reflections

The best part about Ghana has been the people. The adults are generous, wise, proud, beautiful, sad, and kind and the children are playful, curious, clever, and mischievous. Most people wear beautiful colors and there is a tailor in the community who makes custom clothing for everyone.

While we were setting up the clinic there were always little faces peering in the windows at us or running up when our bus arrived. They were eager to play and quick to ask for treats and supplies. One boy gave me big eyes and mimed brushing his teeth. This broke my heart and caused me to skip the normal process of giving adults all the supplies needed for their family at the end of the visit to sneak a toothbrush for this boy. It was a foolish choice. Soon they were swarmed around me begging for toothbrushes. I tried to stop handing them out and had a nurse translate that their mothers would be getting some for them, but they wouldn’t release their hold on the ones in my fingers. I eventually was able to give them to one of the mothers and escape.

I distracted them further by taking pictures of them using a Polaroid camera I brought. They went wild for the pictures, posing and dancing around. Eventually I decided I had used enough of the film and wanted to save some for the other communities. I started playing with them by showing them dance steps, like the Charleston and the salsa basic and spinning them around. They were thrilled and tried to show me their version of head, shoulders, knees, and toes as well as some local kicking games. We also taught each other different clapping games and high fives.

Whenever I had to go inside to help clean up they would follow and call for “sister Afua” after me. I got lots of hugs and happy bounces whenever I would emerge again. At one point we were finishing up at the clinic and it started pouring with rain. Everyone was huddled under the shelter but the kids were being adventurous and darting into the rain. It seemed refreshing after the hot day in the clinic so I followed and played in the rain with them, spinning around and dancing. It was wonderful and by the time I got to the bus my heart was so full it could have burst.

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A Dark Past

Our last full day in Ghana was a cultural day, where we visited a local market and enjoyed Ghanian music and dancing. We also visited Cape Coast Castle, a notorious stronghold of slavery and torture.

36347144_10155376294000824_7797909770412752896_nCape Coast Castle was a trade fortress that was converted for use to house and break the spirit of slaves before they were loaded onto boats. Our visit began wandering around the open air area and looking at the canons over the sea, then into a museum detailing the history of the castle and its role in the slave trade. When I was about halfway through the museum our guide collected us for a tour of the dungeons where the people who were to be slaves were imprisoned.

36393991_10155376293940824_8802817987510796288_n.jpgTo give us a glimpse of the fear they must have felt, he had us initially descend in complete darkness, only turning on lights once we had reached the stone wall on the other side of the male dungeon. He explained that this small underground space held up to a thousand men for months at a time. They were forced into complete darkness where they had to live in their own filth and excrement, packed against their brothers. The floor we were standing on was false, built on top of the human waste that had accumulated there.

36335527_10155376294175824_8162317408808206336_nTo add insult, directly above the slave dungeons where people endlessly suffered was a Christian church. Our guide described the thought process that many slaves went through when they decided to convert to Christianity. To a person experiencing such agony, it would seem like your God had abandoned you or was weak, yet those who followed the Christian faith were clean and happy, prospering above. It must have appeared to many that the Christan god was stronger or better to his worshippers.

The men in these dungeons would never come out the door the entered again. The governor didn’t want the people of the castle to see the slaves, so they were moved, shackled together and driven forth by other slaves, through an underground tunnel to be loaded onto the ships.

36306542_10155376294415824_4634339883559682048_n.jpgThe women’s cells were similar to the men’s, except that their door was regularly opened so they could be grabbed and raped at will. Sometimes they were bathed before this occurred, and other times drunk soldiers would not even afford them that decency. Women who resisted were beaten or put into a hotter cell where they were locked without food and water and often died if their spirits weren’t quickly broken. Our guide shut us into the boiling confinement cell for about 30 seconds, which was enough to have some of us panicking.

The last they saw of their country was the Door of No Return: a portal that brought them to the water where they were lowered and packed into the ships as cargo. By the time they emerged through that door, they had been in darkness for many months and thus were blinded by the bright sun, unable to fight. Those who did not die at sea lead painful backbreaking lives in slavery.

Immediately after walking back through the Door of No Return, our guide took us up to the airy hall where slave prices were negotiated and then up to the British governor’s chambers. The governor had a beautiful set of airy rooms with large windows that looked out on the picturesque coastline. The dichotomy was so startling I felt shaken and revolted.

36350563_10155376294695824_4792468016619061248_nWe were left with a plea to remember that slavery is not gone from this world. People are still taken against their will and forced into terrible suffering and servitude. He asked us to see, to take a stand, and to remember.

We have so much work to do, in our country alone, to ensure that people are able to lead fair and decent lives. The horror of the atrocities that we do to each other when we dehumanize our brothers and sisters is echoing around in my heart.

These terrible things happen when we group people together and see them as ‘other’. We do this sometimes because we want power or wealth, other times because we don’t understand them or are afraid of them. As we band together to stand against injustice, I urge you all to avoid the slippery road of dehumanizing those you stand against. Fight them with all of your fury, but don’t follow the dangerous path of talking the humanity away from anyone.

It is ideas that we fight, not people. Fight against the idea that anyone can be treated as less than human. Our trustest goal is to stop that idea from spreading, to take it out of the minds of people, and until that is accomplished to stop those people from acting on this deadly idea through any means necessary. Stand together against the heinous crimes happening in our country. Do not let this terrible sickness enter your minds and hearts. Keep fighting.

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Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

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The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

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The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

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The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

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We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

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After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

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Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

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Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

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There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

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Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

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Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

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Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

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The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

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We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

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This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

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We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

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Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

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Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

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Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

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They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

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¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.